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.

Country

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.

God

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


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.

---------

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.

---------

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 chair 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.

---------

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.

---------

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.