Friday, December 13, 2013

Pre-Christmas in Suburbia

The past two weeks have been strange and wonderful in New Milford, NJ.

It all started on "Small Business Saturday," a nationwide marketing event designed to be the antidote to the packed shopping malls on Black Friday.

Good idea. But, no joke, my hometown decided to post its "Welcome to the Neighborhood" Small Business Saturday banner on the local funeral parlor.

Then last week I was invited to a business meeting where the dress code was "business jeans." I shudder at the thought.

Finally, after last night's bitter cold, I awoke this Friday the 13th to the sound of something scurrying behind our bedroom walls.

"It's elves," my wife whispered. We're eternal optimists.

My wife dressed warmly for work, topping it off with a Notre Dame pullover.

"It's dress-down day," she explained.

"When you wear Notre Dame gear," I corrected her, "it's actually dress-UP day."

It's evening now, and she's attending a grade-school holiday show. She just texted me that she's coming home early: "I leave when 11 years olds sing 'All I want for Christmas Is You'!"

I told her not to worry, that they were no doubt singing it to Jesus.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Folly of The Follies

Here are photos from last night's 2013 Financial Follies, a benefit dinner and satirical show organized by the NYFWA (New York Financial Writers Association) at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. That's me on the bottom right, with Verizon colleague Ray McConville. I've been going for a few years, and I'm always amazed when journalists who choose not to attend simply trash the event and everything about it. Some of the Twitter comments this year were (surprise) mean-spirited. And yet, the many people who attend the event always have fun.

It's not the show -- although last year there was an entertaining rendition of "It's Raining Yen" -- it's just the energy there... and the setting (always the Friday night before Thanksgiving, seemingly always the second busiest night in Times Square)... and all the people... and ALL the laughter.

It all reminds me of the scene in "Hannah and Her Sisters" when Woody Allen's character finds meaning in his life after he wanders into a Marx Brothers movie. In just that way, my annual ticket to the Financial Follies has become my personal "Duck Soup."  Very uncool of me, I know. But just let me enjoy the show.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Life Was Easier When I Knew Everything

When I first joined NYNEX, there was a hard-drinking PR pro who headed media relations: Jack Fallon. He was Tony Pappas' boss, and he soon retired... so I only got to meet him once. It was a breakfast for new hires arranged by Ted Federici, and I remember that morning the bus from Bogota (where Nancy and I lived at the time) was stuck in traffic for nearly an hour. So, even though I always arrived at work early, I arrived at this breakfast gathering a few minutes late.

I received a withering stare from Mr. Fallon, and an admonition later from Mr. Federici that it would have been better not to have shown up at all rather than to have arrived late. But I don't remember being too concerned about this, or being too impressed by Jack Fallon... after all, I was young and already knew everything.

For example, I knew that my Dad had worked with Fallon, and that he had been a reporter before joining the Bell System as a PR executive. Also, just a few months ago, John Bonomo passed along a note that Fallon had died at the age of 89.

Fast forward to earlier tonight. Nancy and I were watching a great PBS special on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. It focused on the inner workings of the news coverage of the event, and was even narrated by George Clooney.

As I'm watching this, the name "Jack Fallon" was mentioned -- and it turns out that this Jack Fallon -- the same Jack Fallon I had met at 1095 Ave. of the Americas -- was the UPI Dallas bureau chief that day, and he played a significant, historic role in the coverage of the assassination. You could look it up.

If I had known then what I know now, I would have left the house at least two hours early that morning in 1986.

And, just perhaps, I can be a little more respectful of my job. Today, when a Guardian reporter sent me an email with a typo asking me to comment on some complicated issue at 3:20 p.m., I tweeted, "Just got a media request from someone with a 3 p.m. deadline today. Excuse me while I travel back in time."

And then tonight, I did.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Oh, the Irony

The message on this wall greets me every day as I walk to my office.

It. Never. Changes.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Last Day of Summer

The title and photo say it all.

Our household is always the last in the neighborhood to close up our pool. That's in case Gatsby wants to come by and take a dip.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cell Phones Are the Opiate of the People

Here's a scene I don't always see on my way to work... it's a photo of the graveyard at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. I was on my way to a meeting at the offices of the Sapient agency, which is working on a project to redesign the corporate PR and HR websites. The office building is all the way at the end of Fulton Street, near the South Street Seaport, and it was a gorgeous day to be walking around New York.

On the train ride in this morning, I was struck by how many people were engrossed in their cell phones. Many were listening to music, many were texting and I suppose many were just reading the news because I saw not a single printed newspaper among the hundreds of my fellow commuters. Everyone was so quiet and well-behaved, despite the crushing crowds as we filed into the PATH station at Hoboken and back out onto the street at the foot of the new World Trade Center.

I've come to the conclusion that, for better or worse, cell phones have become the opiate of the people.

I almost tweeted that phrase out too, but decided against it... given where I work.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Last Cold Warrior

That would be my Dad, who died nearly eight years ago. I had tritely posted this photo of him on Facebook on Memorial Day, and a friend asked what he was like.

Well, let me tell you: Dad threw the first baseball ever thrown to me.

“He probably dropped it,” he’s saying right now to a passing angel.

He’s saying it with a smile, I am sure. Because the smile means that he’s not serious, that he doesn’t think he was a better man than I am and that, after all, he understands me.

This last comment, I’ve come to believe, is true.

But not the other two things. Deep down, like all fathers, Dad really is serious and really does think he was the better man.

This is the hole in the theory of evolution: No one I’ve met is ever quite as good as his father was. It has do to with the eroding impact of time and the consequent change in values – something that is beyond the control of any father and son.

When Dad graduated from college (he had qualified for both an academic and sports scholarship at Seton Hall), his mother bought him a shark skin suit with money she had saved by hiding it from my grandfather. Dad wore it that day, and then again two years later on the first day of his new job. He couldn’t take a job right after college because he first had to serve in the Navy.

When his active-duty requirement was fulfilled, when he was 23, it was a Friday in 1955. He began his job at New York Telephone, wearing his shark skin suit, the following Monday.

In 35 years there, he never took a sick day. He raised his family. He literally sailed around the world with the Navy, but he figuratively lived and died in New Jersey. He achieved the rank of captain as a reservist, in the Intelligence division. But his politics were never my politics, and I – who knew so much when I was so young – used to teasingly call him “The Last Cold Warrior.”

Dad drank bourbon and quoted Shakespeare when he was drunk. He was a talented calligrapher and artist, and at the age of 17 drew an intricate and richly flourished rendering of the seven last words of Christ. He liked to spend money. He invoked fear in house cats. He had terrible taste in music (witness Aker Bilk, Tom Jones and Trini Lopez). He once was the opposing pitcher to a young Whitey Ford in a semi-pro baseball game.

Despite it all, one day more than a decade ago while Dad watched me dote on my pre-teen daughters, he remarked, “You’re a better father than I was.”

“That’s not true,” I protested.

“You play with your children all the time. I never did that,” he said, trying to toss me a compliment.

“Let’s just drop it,” I said, trying not to disappoint him.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Corporate Storytelling

Once upon a time, it was Groundhog Day, and I saw my shadow as I left for a Saturday morning seminar at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ. "An early spring awaits us," I thought -- then convinced myself for certain because I remembered that my friend Brian Wood had recently had his snowblower repaired. This is a sure sign that there will be no more snow this winter.

The FDU seminar was about "Corporate Storytelling" for internal employee communicators. It included references to "Save the Cat," a popular how-to-write-a-screenplay manual from an author who penned such screen classics as "Stop or My Mom Will Shoot," and to Christopher Booker's "The Seven Basic Plots," which analyzes and categorizes the arcs of every possible story that can be told.

It's as if fiction writing has become a technical science, with tried-and-true methods of manipulate readers or viewers. These methods can be employed much as a professional carpenter might use a schematic to build a bathroom vanity.

This is precisely the kind of writing I am not interested in. I write every day -- driven by something deep inside me -- and I don't know why or what I'll craft of the strands, but I know I need to do it. It's therapy, or a true artistic impulse, or both. But it's not craft.

I'm like my grandmother in this way. Nonna hated fiction. "I'm not interested in stories," she'd say. She read only to learn about something, or to inspire herself, or to deepen her faith -- but never for the sake of entertainment or diversion.

I don't mind being entertained. I love movies, for example -- but I'm often comforted by the fact that many of my favorite movie moments... when Indiana Jones shoots his sword-wielding opponent, when the Godfather calmly strokes a cat, the line "leave the gun, take the cannoli" or "here's looking at you, kid"... were all ad-libbed and of-the-moment and... well, artistic.

The best moments of art, as in life, are not carefully planned and scripted.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Books I Read in 2012

Being active on Goodreads since this past August has inspired me to resolve this year to read and review more books. Here's a list of what I've read -- or listened to on Audible -- over the past five months...

Down RiverDown River by John Hart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Earnest effort that sometimes devolves into purple prose... "the sun was dying in the sky, and I wondered what it would take with it" et al. The story keeps moving along, so I enjoyed it -- but I think I would have liked the written version better than this audio version. The audio version includes an interview with the author, where the interviewer keeps praising his ear for dialog. Yet, in listening to the story instead of reading it, I found the dialog frustrating. In the book, no one ever answers a direct question directly -- or characters often say things that are deliberately cryptic at first. I often found myself in my car shouting at the narrator, "Just answer the question!"

The RacketeerThe Racketeer by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There were few surprises for me in this book -- but it delivered what I expected... solid entertainment. A good story, with a main character I rooted for, and excellent narration by J.D. Jackson. As a work of fiction, or literature, I suppose it rightly should be given three stars. There's nothing exceptional here. But as a guilty pleasure, I'd give it five stars... so my final rating splits the difference.

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America ForeverKilling Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever by Bill O'Reilly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a very entertaining and informative read. I knocked off a star here because I am rating the audio version of the book, which features Bill O'Reilly as the narrator. He has a very jarring narration style -- as if he were TV pundit! -- but, for me, this took away from the listening experience. "Why is Bill O'Reilly yelling at me?" I kept asking myself. But it certainly made me want to read more about the Civil War and American history.

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin LadenNo Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden by Mark Owen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting read that, rightfully so, honors those who serve our country. The story rings true to me.

Hidden (Bone Secrets, #1)Hidden by Kendra Elliot
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

OK, if the mood is right... I suppose. But it was kind of like an extended episode of the TV show "Criminal Minds," including one-dimensional male characters and relationships based on studies in anthropology rather than real life. Not my best reading choice lately.

American Gods (American Gods, #1)American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since all my previous reviews are 4 stars or more, I thought I'd just comment on a recent read that didn't enthrall me. I'm sorry, I just don't get this one. I know a lot of people love this book (and I can understand that feeling, since this is a noble effort), but I found it rambling in a bad way.

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Green is an astounding writer, associated with "YA" (young adult) readers. Ha. I wish teenagers were this articulate, profound, poetic and wise. I'd give this book 5 stars if I could only suspend disbelief long enough for that extra star. The version of this book is especially well-read.

A Painted HouseA Painted House by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a pleasant surprise. Recommended by my friend Mark Marchand, this book reminded me of "The Glass Castle" -- but that's always been one of my favorites too. Filled with baseball references, a good deal of violence and likable, even admirable, characters. I, in turn, recommend it to you.

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Loved the first 2/3rds of the book, but then it started to fall flat for me. Still a great all-around read. Makes "The War of the Roses" seem very tame.

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well-written, including some extraordinarily lyrical and poetic passages.