Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Visit to Princeton... In Real Life

Yesterday, 41 members of the mighty Black Glass Gallery, a social-media-based photography community, gathered on the Princeton University campus on a cold afternoon... just to take photos and spend some time together in real life.

BGG's Princeton meetup; photo by Dawn Barry Pechinsky.

I'm the guy without a hat on, next to hooded Jimmy whose hands are on the light pole. Unlike many of the pros and artists in this photo (whose work you can view at or by searching #BGGmeetup on Instagram), I'm not a photographer in real life.

Still, the virtual gallery's real owner, Suzanne, has always been kind and supportive -- and with the aid of an iPhone, a Canon Rebel and some advanced, yet simple-to-use editing software, I can be a virtual photographer too.

The photos below are mine, including two views from the Princeton Chapel choir loft, some natural greenery on St. Patrick's Day, and the iconic Holder Memorial Tower:

I had intended to post a writeup here as a sort of virtual campus tour.

But, here in 2018, I also realize there are whole-campus, 360-degree virtual reality tours online, with VR representations of real student guides. There's just such a guide to Princeton among the 600+ campuses (including more than a dozen other colleges in New Jersey) featured on YouVisit.

I can't compete with that in a blog post. This post is "analog digital," just a handful of images of a beautiful cold day in March 2018... like the bronze man in J. Seward Johnson's "Out To Lunch" statue in Palmer Square who's reading something that isn't a Kindle.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Best Music You May Never Had Heard

Chris Freeman of Parsonsfield, King of the Alternative World
Last Thursday, at the Mercury Lounge, I saw folk-rock future. Its name is Parsonsfield.

With apologies to Jon Landau, on a night when I needed to feel young, the band made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.

This was the fourth time I’ve seen Parsonsfield perform, and each night I’ve headed for home afterward feeling renewed. It’s a wonder:

  • the same energy;
  • the same improbably clear and distinctive lead vocals by Chris Freeman;
  • the same on-stage camaraderie and joyful showmanship;
  • the same creative arrangements (interesting harmonies and tempo changes, and instruments as diverse as a pump organ, upright base, accordion, mandolin, banjo, synthesizer and handsaw).

On Thursday, the New-England-based band (I first saw them in Wellfleet on Cape Cod) performed in the East Village to mark the release of “WE” – an EP that includes the single, “Kick Out the Windows.”


In a world of instant fame, often obtainable without any achievement, it’s amazing how many talented people – especially musicians – spend their careers flying under the radar.

Uncle Ange, early 1950s, piano and cigarette
Closer to home, I think of my grandmother’s brother, the late Angelo Mairani. I recently found black-and-white photos of him, along with frayed, yellow reviews of his piano playing from a New Jersey newspaper that no longer exists.

Uncle Ange played piano on local radio stations in the ‘40s and ‘50s – but there’s no record of this online, or recordings that I can find.

Still, I remember as a boy the ornate wall of sound Uncle Ange could create from my grandmother’s old piano. I remember the joy with which he played, and the joy he brought to others when he did. It was music as pure celebration -- a sound that pushed out the walls and made all our lives seem bigger and more hopeful.

Parsonsfield is like that.

Certainly, the band has already had success -- critically acclaimed and selling out smaller venues for several years. Their songs are easily found online. “Weeds or Wildflowers” was featured in an episode of “The Walking Dead,” and videos even include a cover of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me.”

Just watch this one-take-video performance of “Empty Rocking Chair”:

I think Parsonsfield deserves even more success, and an even brighter future.

The same applies to the band’s opening act at the Mercury Lounge (Scruffy Pearls, featuring lead singer Carly Brooke), and to Kyle Hancharick, whose earnest, soulful cover of my favorite song, Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” gave me goosebumps during a performance at an out-of-the-way winery in Rockland County, NY.

And especially to Ireland’s Ryan McMullan. It’s almost otherworldly how good he is. I’ve seen him perform in small settings, and I was in awe. I think Ryan will do OK, though. He’ll be the opening act when Ed Sheeran tours Australia later this month.

Who is your own favorite talented, under-recognized musician?

I think Uncle Ange should be the patron saint for all of them. And I think the prayer we should offer up to him on their behalf should be the words to the chorus of Parsonsfield’s new single:

Let’s kick out the windows
Let’s write on the walls
Climb over the fences
Run down the halls
In the light dying
We’ll rage and fight
Go kickin’ and screaming’
Into that good night

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Happy National Grammar Day!

Martha Brockenbrough
(Photo by Emerald England)
Do you have March 4, 2018, (notice the comma after the appositive year) marked on your calendar as Oscar Night?

Good news: There's another reason to celebrate!

Today marks the 10th anniversary of National Grammar Day, established by writer Martha Brockenbrough (rhymes with "broken toe"), grammar advocate and author of Things That Make Us [Sic].

To mark this anniversary, I think Ms. Brockenbrough should win an Oscar for Best Original Awareness Day. I also think tonight's award should honor the memory of Syd Penner, legendary copy editor for the New York Daily News in the Jimmy Breslin era.

I've previously posted about kind, patient and erudite Mr. Penner, who, after retirement, dressed in suit and tie for a weekly visit to the offices of then-NYNEX at 1095 Ave. of the Americas in New York. He would critique and copyedit the press releases and other writing samples of then-me and my colleagues in the Public Relations department.

I treasured every red mark Syd Penner placed on my work. He pointed out grammatical flaws, wordiness, jargon. He also wasn't a fan of adjectives.

Those pages have long since been recycled. Everything went digital. I've moved offices. And, last year, I moved into an open work environment. Just like a newsroom in the Jimmy Breslin era. Kinda.

The point being, in de-cluttering my life before moving from a physical office, I came across a physical copy of the November 29, 1979, issue of The Printer's Devil (Vol. 1, No. 13). This, as noted by journalist Paul LaRosa, was Syd Penner's occasional, internal-to-the-Daily-News newsletter that celebrated stories he liked and knocked those he didn't.

(Note: Wikipedia offers an informative definition of "printer's devil," complete with a link to a related "Twilight Zone" episode, available on Hulu and starring Burgess Meredith.)

This sample of The Printer's Devil is from the late Mr. Penner's personal files. He had given it to me because I kept hounding him to tell me stories about life as a journalist in the '60s and '70s.

I offer it to you here, in celebration of National Grammar Day:

For more information and ideas on ways to celebrate National Grammar Day (no drinking games included), visit

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Happy 75th Birthday, George (My Fab 4)

George, in 1974
This is George Harrison’s 75th birthday weekend. I say “weekend” because even George himself long thought his birthday was February 25th – until one day he learned he was actually born a little before midnight on February 24th. (That’s true. You could look it up.)

George randomly popped into my thoughts two weeks ago after, of all things, I had re-read Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.” I was sad the book didn’t seem as relevant to me after so many years had passed, and I started thinking of creative works that, to me, were still as fresh as when I first encountered them.

Thank God for “The Great Gatsby,” I thought. And the poetry of Yeats. And anything by Poe.
Then I thought of the music of The Beatles.


More than 50 years later, and their music still gives me chills. Despite the untimely deaths of George and John, The Beatles are, for me, forever young and new and bright. They were simply pop musicians, and yet they changed the world for the better.

In the early 2000s, before The Beatles catalog was opened up to streaming and available on Apple Music and the many retrospectives were released – and well before Sirius XM launched The Beatles Channel – it was somewhat rare and a bit unexpected to hear a Beatles song on a car radio. On family drives, with my young daughters in the back seat, they would get to know Beatles’ songs because daddy would suddenly turn up the volume and begin to tell stories about one song or another, sometimes with a sentimental tear in his eye.

Despite this, I’m proud to say that both my now-grown daughters are still Beatles’ fans today.

Now it’s 2018, and the music of The Beatles again seems to be here, there and everywhere. On car rides without my daughters now, I especially look forward to a Sirius XM segment called “My Fab 4,” where listeners, artists and celebrities share their favorite four Beatles’ songs and what makes them special.

Here’s my Fab 4:

1. “Here Comes the Sun”

Because, after all, it’s George’s 75th birthday weekend. Because George was just 26 years old when he wrote this song, even though, by then (1969) the Beatles had already conquered the world and were about to break apart.

Of all the Beatles songs, this one – already widely revered when it was first issued – seems to have gained the most in popularity in the intervening years. It’s recently been the most popularly streamed Beatles song, and it’s easy to understand why.

It’ joyful. It’s an end-of-winter song that lifts the soul. It soars, and it takes you with it.

Not only that, I pick this song first because George is my wife’s favorite Beatle. And because it leads into “Abbey Road”’s next song, “Because.”

2. The whole freaking second side of “Abbey Road”

Life goal: a Varettoni family photo in imitation of this
Vinyl had sides, and this was the best side of vinyl ever pressed.

I love, for example, John’s strong Liverpudlian “Scouse” accent on “Polythene Pam.” John is my favorite Beatle.

John’s accent on that song reminds me that – unlike the Rolling Stones, who were nice middle-class boys acting like street kids – the Beatles were street kids acting like nice middle-class boys.

In November 1963, in one of the first U.S. major news stories about The Beatles (several months before they appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”), NBC’s Edwin Newman noted that all four had been born during The Blitz (the horrific German bombing offensive against Britain during World War II). They grew up in the Mersey section of Liverpool, which Newman called “the toughest section in one of the toughest cities in the world.”

John always maintained that edge and – to me – it was always this element that separated The Beatles from every other great pop music group at the time. I recall John’s shockingly frank interviews in Rolling Stone magazine, which for several weeks in my early teens led me to casually drop f-bombs into my conversation in imitation. I soon stopped that practice, realizing I could never even play-act being as cool as John Lennon.

The medley of songs on the second side of “Abbey Road” is pure 20th Century musical genius – from Paul’s rare bass guitar mistake on the aforementioned “Polythene Pam” all the way to Ringo’s one and only recorded-with-The-Beatles drum solo on “The End.”

3. “A Hard Day’s Night”

Trivia question: What’s the only song in the world recognizable by its opening note?

That’s right, it’s the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night,” played by George Harrison on his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar.

I list “A Hard Day’s Night” here as a meme for all the great early Beatles songs… beginning with that appearance on the Sullivan show (in 1964, when Paul McCartney was only 21 years old), where, safe in suburbia in front of a black-and-white TV, a very young me marveled at the crazed audience reaction… unaware of the raw emotion that rock and blues had already tapped into years earlier and in so many other, less-sheltered places.

For me, “A Hard Day’s Night” represents a time of watching Beatles’ cartoons on Saturday morning TV, and being amazed, through the years, how their music matured and grew over the years. I was just as transfixed, and awed, years later when I first saw the videos on TV for “All You Need Is Love” and “Hey, Jude.”

In fact, in my entire life, I’ve only been flummoxed by one celebrity sighting. I was at a Verizon-sponsored table in 2002 at an Amnesty International event at Chelsea Piers in New York, and at a table practically right next to us sat Paul McCartney and his then-wife Heather Mills.

I was a blithering idiot all evening, in full fan mode. “That’s Paul McCartney!” I repeated more than once, to no one, spilling my water and fumbling with my knife and fork. In fairness, as my boss pointed out, “if you’re acting like this just because you’re in the same room with someone, Paul McCartney is probably the one person in the world I can understand.”

At one point, when Paul was asked to take the stage, I had to stand and pull a chair out of his way.

“Thanks, mate!” he cheerily said to me, touching me on the shoulder as he passed.

Ever since, my wife and daughters have always, over the years, referred to Paul, as my “best friend.”

Sir Paul, if you ever read this, I’m sure you understand what I wrote about John. Someone had to carry on – and in the humble opinion of your friend, I think “Hey, Jude” truly is amazing and “Maybe I’m Amazed” is without doubt the best post-Beatles song ever.

4. “A Day in the Life”

The Beatles somehow recorded this song on four-track tape machines – the equivalent of sending someone to the moon and back with technology that’s less advanced than today’s cell phones.

The first time I heard this song, I was in a grade school class at St. James in Totowa, N.J.

It was near the end of the school year, and one of the coolest girls in the class (Maureen Dunne? Marianne Hydock? It’s all a blur to me now…) had bought one of the first copies of the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

She played this song on a phonograph for the entire class to hear.

It was this song. Despite all the music I had listened to until then, it was like nothing I had ever heard before.

How many times does that happen in your lifetime? When some item is so incredibly new, and surprising – and you recognize it right away.

It happened with I saw the first “Star Wars” movie, and years later when I first held an iPad… and it happened for the first time in my life when I listened to “A Day in the Life.”

This is magic. This is what The Beatles created. Happy birthday, George.

Thanks, mate.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

No Way to Prevent This Violence?

I had intended to post a lighthearted retrospective of #DateNight photos to cap this past week, but something happened on Valentine's Day 2018 that broke everyone's heart instead.

It's the same old thing that happened in November 2017 and October 2017 and December 2015 and June 2016 and October 2015 and June 2015 and May 2014.

After every mass shooting since 2014, satirical news outlet The Onion has repeated the same story (excluding a change in headline in 2016) with an updated photo and updated casualty statistics: "'No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens."

Sadly, satire is not fake news. There are no words, only this: "Here's How to Take Action on Gun Control."

February 14, 2018, Parkland, Florida:

November 5, 2017, Sutherland Springs, Texas:

October 2, 2017, Las Vegas, Nevada:

June 12, 2016, Orlando, Florida:

December 3, 2015, San Bernardino, California:

October 1, 2015, Roseburg, Oregon:

June 17, 2015, Charleston, South Carolina:

May 27, 2014, Isla Vista, California:

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Confessions of a Closet Journalist

I confess, this is my favorite photo of myself.

It's not because of the Ben-Affleck-in-"Argo" haircut and beard.

It's because it's part of a real, honest-to-God New York City press pass... one of the few things in this world even better than having your own Wall-Street-Journal stipple hedcut.

That's why I find it sad today that I even feel the need to write this, but here goes...

I respect and admire journalists very much. They play a vital role in society. Their contribution is incalculable, and their jobs have an extraordinarily high degree of difficulty, given changing technology and audiences, industry competitiveness, and mounting political pressures. All this, combined with long hours and almost no job security.

For personal reasons, I left the field before my press pass expired, and found a home in corporate public relations as a spokesperson. Not a bad gig, either. Because of it, I've had the privilege of getting to know and work with some of the best journalists in the world.

Daily interaction with journalists brings a perspective to my work that can be lacking inside the corporate bubble -- otherwise known as The Land of the $1,800 Louis Vuitton Chair.

Take, for example, the recent Super Bowl commercial for Ram trucks. Imagine the collective consciousness of reporters and editors: "What were they thinking?" Below is a short video that digs a little deeper into the same sermon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that's used in the ad...

Verizon, the company where I work, has bought and sold many businesses over the years. I haven't had to change companies to learn more or tackle new challenges... the company always seems to change around me. "It's good to be Bob," as my wife often sighs.

I've been lucky, blessed and proud to advocate for a business focused on building networks, and which makes its money by connecting people and enabling life-changing new technologies.

This past week I had the opportunity to talk to members of a professional PR organization about corporate financial communications and working with journalists.

I wrote a summary of that presentation, intending to post it here. I've changed my mind, though, and invite you to read "Have Fun With Numbers, and Advance Your PR Career" on LinkedIn instead. (Having, I confess, learned by osmosis the importance of page views.)

It's a rainy Sunday morning in New Jersey. Every minute someone new is tweeting about #FakeNews. Every minute the truth is being manipulated by different sides with different agendas. That's why there's nothing more important to post right now than to offer a word of encouragement, and thanks, to all journalists.


PS - Here's an unsolicited plug for a candid, sometimes heart-breaking personal blog by reporter and editor Kyle Foster. Journalists are usually the best writers, too.

Also, here's an outstanding gift idea, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Phone Call First Responders Will Never Forget

Pardon this commercial interruption... on Super Bowl Sunday, of all days...

But this story is incredible, and the included videos are heart-warming.

As my colleague Meg Schaefer explains, "Verizon teamed up with director Amir Bar-Lev and an investigative journalist to give the people who were rescued by first responders the opportunity to thank them. But to do that, we needed to track down the first responders – the one’s who always answer the call so that they could answer one more… one they would never forget."

Please give this a look. All the videos are posted at

Watching them will make your day, and week, and month.

To learn more about the stories and share your thanks to first responders, visit

Sunday, January 28, 2018

My Daughters, and the Theory of Relativity

I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday, for the first time since May 22, 2011.

How do I know it was May 22, 2011?

Because that's the date in the metadata of this photo of me and my youngest daughter:

Maddy was on the verge of graduating from high school, and we both thought it would be a grand adventure. We had a great time that day, and I have the photos to prove it.

Yesterday, I walked across the bridge alone. I had started out at a photo meetup, but I raced ahead of the rest of the group, driven by cosmic forces. Literally.

The proof? Here's a photo Maddy took of me on May 22, 2011:

And here's a photo a stranger took of me on January 27, 2018:

Same hat, same hoodie, same me... just older.

In 2018, I have learned to appreciate the theory of relativity, the space-time continuum, and the love fathers feel for their daughters.

A book I listened to this past week ("Light Falls: Space, Time, and an Obsession of Einstein," by Brian Greene)... a book I didn't particularly like... reminded me that massive objects cause a distortion in space and time.

Simply put: the black hole of Maddy not being there yesterday caused time to fold in on itself, and I posed in the same place, nearly seven years later... the time it take for all the cells in our bodies to replace themselves... because I was drawn by cosmic forces back to when she stood at my side.

When the orbits of our lives and busy schedules align, we'll walk the Brooklyn Bridge together some other Saturday, I am sure.

Until then, I reread my diary from nearly seven years ago. I wrote about a family dinner the night before Maddy left for college. It was at an Edgewater, N.J., restaurant called Vespa's (no longer there) -- and I was in such a cranky mood that I downed Peroni after Peroni.

I was dreading the drive back that night with just the four of us -- my wife, both daughters and me -- heading, as one, to the same "home" for perhaps the last time in our lives.

My wife did the driving, and I kept asking her to drive slower and slower. If she could drive slow enough, I said, time would reverse itself and Maddy could stay with us a little longer.

I know... I know... I can't keep her by my side forever.

Still, I texted her last night to let her know I had been on the Brooklyn Bridge again, and that I was thinking of her.

She responded right away: "Cool! Did you take any good pictures?"

I sent her this panorama of Manhattan, from the perspective of Brooklyn:

This morning I'm wondering if this photo is a metaphor for my perspective on the lives of both of my daughters.

I love New York. It's unique in all the universe. Sometimes, from where I now stand, it seems beyond my reach.

And yet, there's a bridge that will get me there. I know it will always lead to another grand adventure.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Day at the Museum, Photography Not Included

I'm a traitor to photography.

Don't get me wrong. I love to take photos, and I greatly admire amateur and professional photographers. I'm also happy to contribute to the nearly 100 million photos uploaded daily to Instagram.

It's just that I have zero interest in learning to control the technical aspects of cameras.

I take no joy in adjusting shutter speeds, apertures, ISOs or white balance. Which is strange because I seem to own every electronic gadget imaginable and have spent many a blissful hour fine-tuning computer and cellphone settings.

I own a camera that can do all that photography stuff, but I'd generally rather use whatever cell phone I have at hand. When I do use a digital camera, I trust the automatic mode to calculate all those settings on the fly.

While this doesn't make me a bad person, I can see where this makes me a traitor to many of the photographers I admire. Photographers who are steeped in the technical aspects of their craft are amazing. It's like watching magicians to see them at work -- and they actually know how to use all those accessories that came with the kit I received from my family when they gave me my camera.

I enjoy going to photography meetups (where, to conceal my dark secret, I carry my camera as a beard and take most photos with my phone) to explore and socialize (or "parallel play," as my wife likes to describe it) and hopefully come back with an image or two I can manipulate and enhance with Snapseed filters.

Recently, in a Facebook post, a fellow member of the great Black Glass Gallery photography group (whose moderator makes a point of being inclusive to people who take photos with their phones), made me feel a little better about things. She wrote:
"I am taking a master class online with Annie Leibovitz, and her words were so strong to me as I struggle with never having the perfect lens, camera, etc. 'It has nothing to do with technology,' she said. 'Well, it does and it doesn't. That is the last thing to worry about. You can have the best equipment, but it doesn't help if you can not see.' I just love this. I know I struggle with never having the right stuff and sometimes it gets in my way. I love to just get out and shoot and the feeling I get it something I can't quite describe. I just love the feeling I have when my camera is in my hands."
Similarly, the legendary British fashion photographer Nick Knight has also proclaimed that "photography is dead." He said:
"I think photography stopped years ago and we shouldn’t try and hold back a new medium by defining it with old terms. For 150 years (photographers) did the same thing. Then something else comes along at the end of the 1980s and you could do things you could never do before. And now we’re much further down the line than that. Now I can take an iPhone and form a sculpture. And some people are still calling it photography. …I call it image-making — please could someone get a better description of it — because that’s what I do. Because that can take in sound and movement and 3D, which I think are really part of this new art form. So it’s based on image. That gets away from the thing of truth. Photography has been saddled as the medium of truth for so many years."

The world around us is so beautiful and evocative. There are so many stories to tell, so many wonders to see, so many people who care.

And yet, truth is illusive. The images we modify are just as valid as the images we capture; manipulated images are no different than manipulated words. Creation is self-expression, and self-expression is an invitation to connect, and even parallel connections are better than no connections.

I went to a photography class at the Museum of Natural History last weekend. The instructor was top-notch. He buried us all in our camera settings, and we all took the same images of the same exhibits.

Everyone else was happy, and the class was fine. But after a long half hour, and as inconspicuously as possible, I wandered off on my own.

It was Saturday, I was in New York, and I realized that I didn't have the desire to learn the technical knowledge of a dying technology. I simply wanted to go out and play.