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 36 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.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Happy Birthday, New Milford


My hometown -- New Milford, NJ -- quietly celebrated its 340th birthday this month. Looking through photos I've taken in recent years, here are five things I've noticed about the place:

1. Time doesn't stand still. Sometimes its passage is marked by the side of the field house at the high school track (see above). Or, in early summer, when the sun aligns with the pink flamingos on the lawn of the municipal building...


2. We're always prepared. Thanks to the Scouts. The photo above of "New Milford-henge" was actually a "Get Flocked" fundraiser held by the Boy Scouts last year. At the other end of town a little less than five years ago, the Girl Scouts installed a permanent mural dedicated to New Milford's veterans on Merschrod Bridge. And, this year... like every year... before Memorial Day, Boy Scouts placed flags on the graves of veterans at the historic French Burying Ground across the street from Borough Hall.


3. There's something about Mary. More common than pink flamingos -- or ADT home-protection signs -- or even the sometimes colorful lawn decorations (I call this one "potheads")...


...are the devotional Marys that adorn many lawns and gardens. Here are 15 examples:


Meanwhile, near the Post Office (which is currently advertising itself for rent), at the Gloria Dei Church, there's still also worship space available for rent...


4. Speaking of signs, there's something about small business. Whether it's the Boulevard Funeral Home advertising for business during Small Business Saturday...



Or, a personal favorite, the extraction of a lawn tooth (before, top; after, bottom) on River Road:


5. There's something about baseball. Little League baseball is very big here... whether it's the bleacher sign in homage to "Bad News Bears," or the magical realism of an ordinary game night.




Happy 340th birthday, New Milford! Here's to many more Memorial Days.. and Tree Lightings... and Nights Out... and inflatable penguin sightings...








 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Rutgers Gardens


Here's a photo of the iconic giant green Adirondack chairs at Rutgers Gardens. I spent yesterday there, wandering around with photographers from #NJspots and my former Verizon colleague Jerry Rizzo.

The gardens -- located at 112 Ryders Lane on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick -- include a pond, a bamboo grove and a collection of giant pine trees. I kept looking up in wonder... which is a pretty good way to spend an afternoon.

I've posted additional photos in this shared folder on Google Photos.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Media Advice for Mascots

I love Mr. Met and, knowing that he can’t use his own voice to defend himself, let me offer the following media advice.

Don’t Make Excuses. It doesn’t matter what the facts are. Everyone knows that Mr. Met has only four fingers, so how is it, exactly, that he is accused of using his middle finger?

It doesn’t matter, though. If the entire Twitterverse, and the back page of the Daily News says you’ve flipped fans the bird – and there’s an incriminating photo to back it up – you’re guilty.

Apologize for Yourself. The Mets organization immediately issued an apology, and I realize that Mr. Met can't (or doesn’t) actually speak – but, to all appearances, it looks like Mr. Met is hiding behind someone else’s statement. I advise the mascot to issue a video writing out his own apology, or issue a photo holding up his own statement.

Make Amends. This is where Mr. Met has been served a softball he can hit out of the park. Community service is his strength. There are countless photos of Mr. Met helping out at recycling rallies and other events, brandishing his t-shirt cannon, posing for fans with Mrs. Met… the possibilities here are endless. Mr. Met, with that permanent smile on his face, should get back to doing just those things that made him loveable in the first place.

I stand by my friend.
Yes, there should be a cooling off period where Mr. Met stays out of the public eye. Three news cycles – which equates to about 24 hours, in today’s world – should do it.

The public always wants to forgive you. There’s no better story than a fallen hero who redeems himself. I look forward to the day (later tonight or tomorrow) when Mr. Met can quietly resume doing what he does best: putting smiles on the faces of children or, I admit it, grown-ups who work in PR.

Originally posted on my LinkedIn page.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Laurel Grove Cemetery, Totowa

Before posting a photo of Totowa's Elk on Instagram, I did some research on Laurel Grove Cemetery, which I visited with Mom yesterday so she could decorate Dad's grave for Memorial Day.

I found, for one thing, that there is another blog called "Lost in Jersey," which has, like much of its subject matter, been abandoned in recent years. Still, it's wonderfully done and actually focused on the Garden State... rather than what we have here, the nonsensical ravings of a lunatic mind.

Wandering through that site on this raining morning in 2017 has led me to discover many things about Laurel Grove, including the related legend of Annie's ghost (also here). So thank you, lost@lostinjersey.com, whoever you are.

For myself, having grown up in Totowa, I would say that the gravestone that holds the most interest to locals is the light bulb belonging to Sal Giardino, the "World's Greatest Elecrician."



Set high on a hill and surrounded by gravesites adorned with American Flags for #MemorialDay2017 is Totowa NJ’s famous Elk – which to travelers along nearby Route 80 is often mistaken for a grazing deer. The statue’s rectangular base is engraved with the words “Charity,” “Justice,” “Brotherly Love” and “Fidelity” – the mission of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. As the saying goes, once a member of the B.P.O.E. organization (my Aunt Helen used to tell me that B.P.O.E. stood for “best people on earth”)… always a member. So this is among the number of lodge-owned cemetery plots around the country, called Elks Rests. The one in Lauren Grove Cemetery is owned by Elks Lodge No. 60 in Elmwood Park, a town which until 1973 used to be called East Paterson. . . . #memorialday #graveyard #njhistory #njphotographer #njisntboring #just_newjersey #weirdnj #wildnewjersey #jerseycollective #njshooterz #njspots
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