Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dimensionalize That Paradigm!

Two books converge in the woods, and I choose the one more complicated


A long-favorite short story by James Thurber, “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” tells of an American woman at a hotel in the English countryside, circa 1955. She wants to read a good mystery story before going to sleep, but the only thing close at hand by her bedside was Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

So she reads it as a murder mystery, and comically reads too much into everything.

I’ve just done the same thing with two shortish novels – “Private” by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro and “The Reason You’re Alive” by Matthew Quick – that happened to be taking up space in my Kindle library. I figured, “Well, what the hell…”

The only thing the two books have in common is that the protagonists of both are war heroes, with unlimited access to funding.

I fear I’ve read far too much into both books, however. I’m now all worked up about the art of storytelling.

Private (Private, #1)Private by James Patterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Private,” the first book in the Jack Morgan series, is a relentless plot machine. Resistance is futile. Every chapter is bite-sized and fast-moving. Multiple plots are juggled with ease. Celebrities make cameos. The men are more manly; the women all sleep with Jack. One plot involves the NFL… accompanied by the mafia, of course. Another involves obligatory cyber-genius serial killers preying on young females. There’s plenty of sex, violence and advanced forensics. In short, it’s a typical late 2000s episode of “CSI” or “Criminal Minds,” with the loose ends neatly tied up before a closing ad for Kraft Foods.

The thing is, you can’t put the book down – and you can’t argue with its success. It’s like eating peanuts from the generous bowl the bartender always places in front of Jack because he’s such a big tipper. You always think, “Just another chapter or two before I put this down…”

“Private” is published under the James Patterson Brand… ghost-written by Paetro and, judging from the acknowledgements, researched by a small army of assistants. It takes a village to be a best-selling author these days.

The Reason You're AliveThe Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After this naked, tour-de-force of storytelling, reading “The Reason You’re Alive” reminded me of a corporate parody video I once saw where a marketing manager urged his staff to “dimensionalize that paradigm.”

I now think I finally know the meaning of that phrase. You see, I see what you did there, Mr. Quick. You dimensionalized the paradigm of storytelling.

“The Reason You’re Alive” isn't all about the plot. It's told by an unreliable narrator in a PTSD mental fog – a non-politically-correct war hero. There are graphic descriptions of war crimes, combined with lots of casual and mean-spirited obscenity. There’s also a deus-ex-machina Vietnam buddy who provides the funding that makes the ending possible.

Still, in the end, I didn’t really enjoy the book that much, to be honest. It was all a little too forced, a little too quirky. The war crimes are over-the-top but, hey, I’ve read that Miramax has purchased the movie rights, so maybe it’s just me. I probably never watched enough episodes of “CSI” and “Criminal Minds” to become as desensitized as a studio executive.

Still, if forced to choose between the two books, I’d choose “The Reason You’re Alive” in a heartbeat. It’s not like everything else. And “Private” is precisely like everything else.

The moral here is that I’m going to re-think the “reading whatever is close at hand” trap I’ve fallen into lately.

I’m now looking for something that dimensionalizes the storytelling paradigm, but that that also isn’t a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I hear “Macbeth” might be a pretty good read.


View all my Goodreads reviews

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Michelangelo in Paramus

From my Instagram feed about New Jersey

You don't see this every day in a shopping mall parking lot: an exhibit of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel artwork.

I visited there last night and took these photos.

Here's further information about it posted on the sponsor's website:
"Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel" recreates the awe and wonder of one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements, while allowing its visitors to experience this art from a new perspective. The ceiling paintings from the Sistine Chapel have been reproduced using state-of-the-art technology. In order for the observer to fully engage and comprehend the artwork, the paintings have been reproduced in their original sizes.

Westfield Garden State Plaza will host the exhibit September 1-October 15th in the West Parking Lot nearest Lord & Taylor in Paramus.
Just another reason to love New Jersey.

PS- Regarding the artwork, I have to say... there was a lot of finger-pointing at the exhibit!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A New Generation Runs to a Crisis

My 9/11 Pinterest site
Driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike this morning – on the eve of the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- I saw a convoy of Con Edison trucks heading south, toward Florida, to help restore electricity in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The crews were speeding in the opposite direction of safety, because they knew they had a job to do.

I’m proud to see the same ethic on display at my own job.

I work in PR at Verizon, and I know colleagues who are, right now, staffing Florida command centers 24x7 in hardened facilities state-wide, built to withstand Category 5 winds. They are already assessing damage and coordinating with emergency management teams to provide support as soon as it is safe and possible. Just as other colleagues did in Texas last week… and just as still others did nearly 16 years ago today.

I recently had the chance to review and comment on a publisher’s proof of a history of Verizon. Although I was with the company on 9/11/01, I was lost in the details of my own experience while safely in Midtown Manhattan, and so I was astounded and moved to read the detailed story of the extraordinary bravery and commitment to service by workers at Ground Zero who miraculously reopened the New York Stock Exchange just days later.

I’ve been archiving materials I’ve come across about these efforts. I’ve posted them on this Pinterest page. The most amazing artifact is a 38-minute video of the key participants who led efforts to restore service, in their own words.

This year, I’m also sharing a separate Google folder of archival photos detailing the damage to Verizon’s communications hub at 140 West Street, adjacent to Ground Zero, just days after the attacks.

Part of Verizon’s employee Credo is that “we run to a crisis, not away” – and since 9/11/01, many thousands of employees have been on site to repair and restore damaged networks, and still more have responded with monetary aid and donations to about three dozen emergency situations through the company’s Disaster Relief Incentive Program. This includes Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama, and – just this past week – Hurricane Harvey, the Mexico earthquake and now Hurricane Irma.


This afternoon, as I was writing this, I retweeted a network status update from Verizon’s Florida PR contact, Kate Jay. When I did, I happened to see the tweet below by John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, promoting his “Slow Cook Sunday” Facebook Live feature, just a few hours after Irma made landfall on the Florida coast.

Legere has amassed more than 4 million Twitter followers and often insults competitors. One recent Sunday morning, he retweeted a story about the first-ever telescopic picture of a black hole. “Wait…” he commented, “Is this a photo of Verizon’s soul??”

It was a joke; I get it.

But this Sunday, I’m not in the mood to laugh.

Yes, Verizon does have a soul. The evidence was on display in 2001, just as it has been this Sunday.

We run to a crisis.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Two Evergreen Books, And One Rotten Movie

“Wonder” is a wonderful story, with great and uplifting messages (“Be kinder than necessary!”). It's a book I highly recommend for young readers. My only “critical” observation as an adult reader: this is definitely a young-adult book written for young adults.

Duh, right?

The point is, I’ve read, and more enjoyed, other YA fiction that is more nuanced. In “Wonder,” you get sections of trite observation (every housekeeping instruction provided over a loudspeaker at a kid’s first sleepaway camp), and black-and-white conflict resolution.

Still, the author is clever – and the story is (thankfully) told from multiple (non-adult) viewpoints. The point-of-view of the main character’s sister is unexpectedly honest. Suspending disbelief, I was also won over by the guileless character of Summer, and it was refreshing to read an unironic account of a supportive family life.

It makes me sad to think that “Wonder”’s setting in Manhattan’s “North River Heights” really might be mythical in more ways than one.

I also felt guilty about thinking this book was not “adult enough” in tone, so I recently purchased a copy of “Charlotte’s Web” on audible.com – if only to hear E.B White read his own children’s story. It’s been many years since I first read it.

What a treat to listen to! Despite having talking animals in a land that, unlike “Wonder,” has little in common with where I live and society today, “Charlotte’s Web” was genuinely enthralling. Go figure. I attribute this to the extraordinary craft of E.B. White’s writing. If R.J. Palacio doesn’t measure up in this regard… well, she’s in good company, because I can’t think of anyone else alive who does.

I do suspect, though, that R.J. Palacio’s novel will age well. It has some timeless themes, and you should read it yourself. It's likely to be better than the upcoming movie, which, from previews, looks to be even more sanitized.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a decidedly unsanitized movie I re-watched after many years: “MASH.” It was so epically bad I felt compelled to post my first IMDB review after viewing it. I just wanted someone, someday to know that this was where I drew the line between good and bad, evergreen and rotten:

 Bob's First IMDB Review
When I saw this movie in the '70s, I was intrigued by it. It came out around the time of the book "Ball Four" (and, in contrast, the movie "Patton") and all made me think. In fact, I saw this movie on the same bill as "Patton." Seeing this movie last week (August 2017), I was horrified by it. It's truly awful: mean-spirited, condescending and misogynistic. I think it might even have spread seeds for the anti-left feelings (and the resulting election of Donald Trump) for many people in my generation.
I'm still a liberal, but I can only hope I've aged better than this movie.
I should have added that the film was racist and homophobic, but, you know, I generally try to keep things upbeat. I try to be kinder than necessary.

And… I get it: It was a breakthrough film in a different era. Robert Altman was a genius. It had adult themes (it was even initially rated X). The real villains are not the protagonists but those who perpetrated the background war.

I get it – and I’ve also posted on the how-liberal-hate-fueled-the-Trump-election theme before.

I get it, and I’m still not going to waste another second of my life on "MASH."

Perhaps you have two hours to kill this upcoming Labor Day weekend, in these waning hours of civilization before North Korea is provoked into dropping the Big One on Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan.

Before you consider spending those two hours watching "MASH," here’s my suggestion: Spend the first hour reading an E.B. White essay called “Here Is New York,” and spend the next hour going for a walk with someone you love.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

New York City, Stylized by Google

Passing through the iconic Rotunda Room at The Pierre for my daughter's 21st birthday dinner in November 2013, I awkwardly snapped a photo with my cell.

Thus began a long, strange relationship with me and Google Assistant, which has since automatically stylized a number of photos I've taken in New York City ever since.

I don't know what about New York makes the algorithm in a Google Photos folder want to constantly filter scenes from the city -- and so often in black and white, as if my life were a Woody Allen movie.

You can view 40 of these filtered photos in this shared folder.

I've taken thousands of photos over this time, but it's always the ones in New York that Google automatically chooses to filter. It must be a city that enchants even our new robot overlords.

The thing is -- except for the black-and-white images -- I don't think the filters add romance or glamour or perspective to the real thing.

New York is an extraordinary place, with a singular style... and even on Google Assistant's best day it can't match the inspired opening of "Manhattan," set to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

I adore New York; I romanticize it all out of proportion. I am especially comforted by the thought that it will always be bigger than Google.

 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Build a Cathedral With the Sound of Your Own Voice

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City
In our video age, what’s the most underappreciated communications medium?

It’s the powerful magic inherent in the sound of our own voices.

This, according to Vivian Schiller, an accomplished and respected strategist who recently spoke at Verizon’s campus in Basking Ridge, NJ, about the intersection of journalism, media and technology.

She shared insights about fake news and other vital topics, but when asked about emerging trends, she had a surprising observation.

Vivian noted a resurgence in the form and popularity of “podcasts” (for want of a better word). That is, short-form audio that can be streamed or downloaded, as an effective tool of modern communications.

“After print, audio is the oldest form of media,” she said. “It’s the only form of media you can consume while you’re doing something else. You don’t need to look at it.”

Vivian Schiller
She continued, “There’s something magic about audio. It’s deeply personal.”

---------

Think about it. Is there anything more intimate than someone whispering in your ear?

This is primal. Images left to our imagination can be much more powerful than images presented to us, and filtered, for our appreciation or entertainment.

Words are symbols representing something based in reality. Strung together – adding a human voice, either in song or spoken word, with flow and melody and meaning – mere words become something more than reality. They become the bricks and mortar we can use to build our own cathedrals.

Think of the Bible story of Elijah, who went to look for God on top of Mount Horeb:
A strong wind ripped through the trees and sent large rocks crashing like pebbles against the side of the mountain. But God was not in the wind. When the wind stopped, an earthquake nearly toppled the mountain. But God was not in the earthquake. When the earth settled, a fire spread through the uprooted trees.
Elijah sighed wearily, unmoved by all the destruction. He returned to his cave, content to wait for the fire to burn itself out because he knew God was not in the fire.
The next morning, waking from a dream, he heard a close but barely perceptible sound. The prophet staggered to his feet then fell to his knees and hid his face in the sleeve of his coat. He was shaking with fear, because he knew God was in the whispering voice.
In my own life, I consider how I am spending more and more time these days listening to audio books, which has reignited my love of literature and sparked my curiosity about many topics outside the scope of my career.

I also think of my continued fascination with poetry.

Experimenting with audio a few months ago, I posted about how I had recorded an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet my late Dad used to recite to my mother, so that Mom could listen to it today on her Amazon Echo.

Today, I'm trying another experiment, to share with a wider audience: In an 8-second-attention-span world, I’m inviting you to listen to a spoken-word, 8-minute excerpt from something I wrote a long time ago.

The scene is set is the grandeur of the very real St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It’s about an ordinary man’s dreams and a lost love named Virginia. In all the thousands of words I’ve ever written, these 1,200 are perhaps my favorite.

So, inspired by Vivian and summoning the gods of underappreciated magic, I invite you to listen to my story. It begins, “After a fitful night...



Monday, July 17, 2017

Three Haikus Walk Into a Bar...

The first orders beer
The second, a sparkling water
The third poem stays dry
It's no joke that I'm a fan of poetry, whether it involves memorizing passages or yesterday's post about writing sonnets on demand.

I've lately also been experimenting with using haikus (or a bastardized version of a haiku, which is sometimes all I can manage) as captions for my Instagram posts.

For what it's worth, I'll plant three examples right here, virtually water them, and otherwise include no commentary. Let's see how long they live:

Casting sheets of clouds
Over a muddy river
Ohio, as a ghost


Captured, brown and green
We hold hands in bright colors
And head for the light


Rain at dusk in Queens
Exploding sky to the west
Gatsby in New York

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Poetry on Demand

This week I posted a #TBT photo to my Instagram account -- and it got me thinking.

This street poet I admired during a recent trip to New Orleans reminded me how much I used to like writing sonnets. So I had started this one on Wednesday night:

I have encased my soul in tempered glass,
Displayed it on the mantel in our home.
The frame collects the dust beside the vase
Of silk flowers embed in styrofoam. 
Beneath this centerpiece, a raging fire,
Timer-controlled, heats wood that doesn't burn.
The warmth is real, and I am safe. Desire
Consumed, I wait alone for love's return. 
Then in you walk...

I fell asleep at this cliff-hanger at the start of the third stanza. Thursday, after all, was just another working day, and (as Paul Simon sings in a favorite of mine, "American Tune") I needed to get some rest.

I was struggling to finish this at home on Friday, weary from the week. It was quiet in our living room, and I looked at my wife reading in the corner, when the 9 o'clock church bells started to ring at nearby Ascension parish. The church has a tower, but it is empty of an actual bell. Instead, there's just a speaker that plays recorded chimes throughout our neighborhood.

That's when I took out my trusty notebook -- one a friend from work, Jason Moriber (now forever remembered here), unexpectedly bought me one day as we were hanging out during lunch hour in New York -- and I came up with this:

I have encased my soul in tempered glass,
Displayed it on the mantel in our home.
The frame collects the dust beside the vase
Of silk flowers embed in styrofoam. 
Beneath this centerpiece, a raging fire,
Timer-controlled, heats wood that doesn't burn.
The warmth is real, and I am safe. Desire
Consumed, I wait alone for love's return. 
Then in you walk... Alarms trip. Cats take flight
And lose several lives. A fake church bell sounds.
You flip the light. Night is day; day is night.
Hamlet, without doubt; Ophelia, undrowned. 
My kingdom would be bound in a nutshell,
Had not your flame out-scorched suburban hell.

I was thinking of a favorite line from "Hamlet" at the end -- "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not for my foolish dreams."

Well, actually, Shakespeare wrote "bad," not "foolish" -- so that's just me.

Anyway, on Instagram -- and now forever here too -- I am offering to write a sonnet on demand for anyone. Just send me a topic and the reason why you chose it (bvar@verizon.net).

Like the virtual street poet I hope to become, I'll do my best to deliver poetry on demand.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Re-opened: St. John the Baptist Cathedral, Paterson


An intriguing story in The Record reported on yesterday's dedication ceremony at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Paterson, NJ -- a church that has been closed for renovation for six years.

The church is 152 years old, and after portions of the ceiling began to fall, the Diocese of Paterson embarked on a $17.4 million project to restore the structure to its previous grandeur. A priest who attended the dedication said, "It's the closest place to heaven there is in New Jersey."

After a packed house for the 1 p.m. Spanish Mass filed out of the church on the first Sunday after its re-opening, I filed in and took these photos.

The place was gorgeous -- and full of life. I was hardly the only one taking cell-phone photos (although I was the only one to sneak up the metal spiral staircase to the choir loft, where I took the photo at the top of this page).

The church holds special meaning, because my uncle was ordained there. Then-engaged Mom and Dad had eagerly attended this ceremony, since they wanted Julian to officiate at their wedding. The proudest person in the church that day was Nonna, my grandmother, who turned to her husband in the parking lot and insisted, "Varry (my grandfather's nickname, an abbreviated form of Varettoni), you CAN'T sit in back of the church today. You have to sit up front with me!"

I believe he did, too -- although I have no photos to prove it. On a recent visit to Fr. Julian's house, I had combed through his old photos, and the closest I found was this:


It's a vintage Holson Stereo Slide Viewer, battery operated, with slides and a storage case. I looked at a few of the slides and happened to take a photo through the viewing lens of my uncle, dressing for his ordination at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in 1955.

I suppose, 62 years from now, the album I posted today in Google Photos will seem just as quaint and curious as the Holson viewer... or, maybe, the things we send to the cloud today will become irretrievably buried in a sea of data. Perhaps all will be lost, because it isn't tangible.

At least our cathedrals should survive.