Friday, December 25, 2015

Surrounded by Angels

Every year, on Christmas Eve, I hear my uncle tell the story of an angel appearing to a man named Joseph in a dream.

It's the Gospel reading for the Christmas Vigil Mass. Ever since my dad died a decade ago, my own small family always travels with my mom to visit his older brother, a retired Catholic priest... and we celebrate Mass together, with the same readings, every Christmas Eve.

And every year, I identify with Joseph. When my uncle reads the Gospel, I see angels all around the small dining room table of his childhood home.

I see where dad used to sit when I was a boy. I see the chalice where my grandmother always placed the salt shaker, just out of reach from my grandfather. From where I sit, I still see his outstretched arm, and I still see my grandmother in the kitchen, still secretly stifling a laugh.

Mass ends, and we joke about the lack of a homily and the lack of a collection -- and my uncle turns a bit wistful about the lack of music.

We may be too bashful to sing, but I sometimes want to tell my uncle that, every year, I still hear his own uncle -- my grandmother's talented brother -- playing piano in the living room.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Found in NJ: Greetings From Asbury Park

Asbury Park's abandoned carousel pavilion.
Few places in my home state are as haunted by the passage of time as Asbury Park.

Years ago, when my wife was editor of her high school yearbook, she arranged a trip there so the staff could have their photo taken on the town's famous carousel.

Today, the pavilion is gutted. All the entrances are chained, but you can still poke your cell phone through the iron bars to take a photo of where 72 fiberglass animals used to spin. Against the black back wall, a New York street artist, Harif Guzman, has painted a bold mural of a crowd of stylized faces outlined in white. It's now my Twitter background.

Images from Asbury Park, Dec. 13, 2015.
With Asbury Park's rich and sentimental history, its scars of hurricane damage, and its odd mix of abandonment and rebirth in close proximity, I felt something of New Orleans in the air when I visited there last weekend.

Since then, I've been caught in the undertow of this small city by the Jersey shore. I haven't been able to stop thinking about its sights and sounds (thank you, Stone Pony) and boyhood memories (thank you, Mom and Dad).

It's no surprise to me that Asbury Park is home to a diverse collection of photographers, artists and writers. This past Sunday, I met some of these talented people at The Collective Art Tank on Bangs Avenue, a co-op where "creative minds can learn art, teach art, talk art and live art…collectively."

I participated in a writing workshop sponsored by @jerseycollective, an Instagram account that's a collaboration among NJ photographers (hello@suzanne_ap@joepartusch@toxictinsgallery and friends). As Jersey Collective described on Tumblr, "We thought it would be fun to try something new and have an event centered on a different form of creativity besides photography... We started off with a warm-up: we all wrote for three minutes using one of the photographs from our gallery show as the inspiration. Then we talked a little bit about how we approached the exercise."

I found the writing easy to do. That's me at the bottom of the photo below, jotting a quick few lines about the warmup exercise photo by @crunchygirl: "Feet first... toes out of water... I tried to walk, but fell on my back."



I was more introspective during the main exercise, choosing to write about a black-and-white photo by @robsociety.


I wrote:

I've never once, in my entire life, put a quarter into a public pair of binoculars to see a better view. I think, after all, this is one my character flaws. I'm not adventurous enough. 
I take things at face value and accept them blindly. I'm afraid to put my eye against the lens and turn the dial for a clearer view. 
I think, perhaps, if I did put my eye to the lens... that the world would be looking into me. That I would be the one under the microscope. How many others, I wonder, have fallen victim to this trick? How many inner secrets do these binoculars know? 
So I prefer this uneasy truce: I won't put a quarter into you... if you turn a blind metallic eye and keep my secrets too.


Again, I found this easy to do -- which was a bit disappointing. As I've grown older, I fear I may have become a bit of a hack. One of my life's goals is to write something that might always be remembered. And I simply can't do with an off-handed wave of my pen.

Like Asbury Park, I find myself haunted by the passage of time. Someday it may be too late to create something of lasting value. But I intend to keep trying.


Here's one last reflection on a photo, the one where I'm taking a selfie in the mirror at The Collective Art Tank:

Time is closing in all around me, but I refuse to be trapped. 
I was born and raised in New Jersey. 
I know my way to water.


This is the second post in a series that spotlights interesting locations in New Jersey.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Found in NJ: Fairmount Cemetery

On a gentle bluff overlooking sometimes un-trafficked Route 517 in Tewskbury, this cemetery is thrice removed from any easy Internet search. For one thing, there's a much larger Fairmount Cemetery in Newark. For another, even this site is different than the Fairmount Presbyterian Church graveyard, just across the street. And finally, even the church across the street is often confused with another church -- currently up for sale -- just up the road at an intersection with a traffic light.

When I visited yesterday, I said a prayer at a gravestone etched with the image of a soldier, Brian Varsalone, who died before his 26th birthday in 1992. An hour later, Google hauntingly sent me a message that it had auto-edited the photo I took there.

The gravestone read, "I am home in heaven, oh so happy and so bright. There is perfect joy and beauty in this everlasting light..."




View other photos I took of Fairmount Cemetery here.

This is the first of what I intend to be a series that spotlights interesting locations in New Jersey.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Morning in New Jersey


This morning, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the trees were already bare in my hometown.

Just one week earlier, their branches had been ablaze in contrasting shades of red, yellow and brown. But as Election Day dawned, only streams of toilet paper remained on the tree outside the polling place at the library.

This particular tree had been teepeed in the tradition of Goosey Night (or Mischief Night, if you're not from Passaic County), the night before Halloween. There's no longer any widespread evidence of Goosey Night pranks in litigious 2015, however; just neighborhoods letting their children playfully mark their own property.

Seasons change; times change -- yet inside the library I was greeted by the same group of Election Day volunteers who I see year after year. None were young more than 20 years ago, when I first moved here, but none seem to have aged in the meantime.

It's as if people who volunteer at the polls have somehow managed to suspend time -- the same way the waiting list never seems to winnow at a nearby nursing home where a relative hopes to soon reside. In New Jersey, if you want to live forever, just get your name on the waiting list for Marian Manor.

After voting, I noticed pagan and Christian images competing with each other on a nearby street. An elaborate Halloween lawn display has been set in the shadows of Ascension Church.

This is New Jersey. Nowhere else in America are so many contrasts in such close proximity to each other. My home state is a land where rural, suburban and urban extremes coexist almost side by side. It's also a land of paradox, where everything changes quickly and nothing changes at all.

On Instagram (@bvarnj) and Tumblr, I explore and document my love for the state, and I invite you to follow me there.

Meanwhile, another morning in New Jersey has come and gone. It leaves me hopeful, because I know things can change in an instant here and there's something unexpected around the next corner.

As our poet-laureate sings, "Show a little faith, there's magic in the night."




Sunday, November 1, 2015

Let's Eat, Drink and Be Merry... and Celebrate All Souls

Two photos, years apart, on Varettoni Place, named after Dad's brother.
With apologies to my life coach, Crash Davis, I’d like to point out that All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, is boring. Besides that, it’s fascist.

All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2, is democratic. It’s the liturgical Festivus for the rest of us.

Like people in other cultures, I believe that the spirits of my dead ancestors are always surrounding me. Which probably explains why I need a life coach.

It also explains all my odd family customs around food and drink.

For example, this past Oct. 9 – on what would have been John Lennon’s 75th birthday – my family had hot dogs and beans for dinner, with fudge marble cake for dessert.

Dessert on Oct. 9.
That’s because Oct. 9, 2015, also marked what would have been Patrick Cullinane’s 55th birthday. He’s my wife’s brother, the nicest guy I’ve ever known. He died of cancer 16 years ago, and this was his favorite meal.

On Oct. 24, 2015, on the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death, I sat down at Dad’s favorite diner, the Tick Tock in Clifton, NJ (not far from Varettoni Place). I ordered his favorite meal: eggs over with sausage, home fries, rye toast and coffee.

The older I get, the more I can taste the past.

I can’t take a bite of black licorice without thinking of Dad’s father, whom I called Nonno. My grandfather was a great fan of the New York Mets in the 1960s, and I have fond memories of him in his easy chair while watching baseball on TV.

Breakfast on Oct. 24.
My wife is also a longtime Mets fan, and she sometimes inadvertently pantomimes him – and her own grandfather – when she gets angry while watching Mets games on TV because no ballplayer these days knows how to lay down a sacrifice bunt.

Her airing of grievances – in imitation of Nonno – proves that honoring the dead has nothing to do with heredity. Instead, it is inextricably linked to our salvation.

Let me explain.

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death, my Mom had a Mass said in his name at St. James parish in Totowa, NJ. My sister took a red-eye flight from California to attend – and we had both ordered eggs over with sausage, home fries, rye toast and coffee at the Tick Tock Diner that morning.

During the homily at Mass later that evening, a priest claimed the Gospel passage contained proof of Jesus’ historical existence: The fact that the beggar who approached Jesus had a name, and even referenced his father by name, was the kind of significant detail that had the ring of truth.

Later, during Mass, there were more important words that brought home a larger truth to me.

The priest raised the host at the moment of consecration and said, “Take this, all of you, and eat it... Do this in memory of me.”

So let's eat and drink and celebrate to honor our dead.

With both joy and sadness in my heart, I offer an All Souls’ toast to Dad and Uncle Pat, Nonno and Nonna, my Mom’s brothers and sisters, and all the dearly departed in my life.

Although they would never presume to call themselves saints, I know that – as long as I am alive – they will never die.



Thursday, October 8, 2015

10 Poems and Passages to Learn by Heart

Here’s the full text of the poem.
I owe my love of poetry to a lawyer -- and today, National Poetry Day 2015, I'd like to thank him.

Mr. Sullivan (he insisted his first name was “Mister”) was my first high school English teacher in Wayne, New Jersey.

To pass his one and only test one semester, you were required to stand in front of the entire class and flawlessly, and without notes, recite William Cullen Bryant’s long poem about death, “Thanatopsis.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Sullivan (a lawyer by trade, who taught only this one class) would sit behind his desk, dispassionately reading the day’s newspaper, which he had extracted from his ever-present black briefcase.

Dressed like a Blues Brother in skinny tie, white shirt and dark-colored suit, Mr. Sullivan – on non-test days – was boyishly irreverent and sharply funny. He was constantly brushing a stray shock of grey hair from his forehead, as if impersonating Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce.

He insisted that learning such a long poem by rote would teach us mental discipline, and that standing proverbially naked in front of our jeering peers at such a tender age would teach us confidence and presentation skills.

He claimed not to care a whit about the poem itself.

But that only made me care all the more. And the memorization – and seeing and hearing the interpretation of each of my classmates – forever changed something in my internal wiring.

To clever Mr. Sullivan… to him who in the love of nature holds communion with her visible forms… I owe undying gratitude.

So, without further ado, here's my recommended list of 10 poems and prose passages to learn by heart:
    1. Sailing to Byzantium -W.B. Yeats
    2. Daddy -Sylvia Plath
    3. somewhere i have never travelled  -E.E. Cummings
    4. I Hear an Army -James Joyce
    5. Annabel Lee (with audio) -Edgar Allan Poe
    6. Dover Beach -Matthew Arnold
    7. To His Coy Mistress -Andrew Marvell
    8. Vladimir Nabokov’s first paragraphs of “Lolita”
    9. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last paragraphs of “The Great Gatsby” (video)
    10. Harper Lee describing Maycomb, Alabama, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Keep this handy. It may someday – like Walt Whitman said about baseball – repair your losses and be a blessing to you.

Many years after high school, I used to recite “Annabel Lee” to my young daughters to get them to go to sleep. Yes, I may have subliminally altered their psyches – but, like Mr. Sullivan, I may also have imprinted on them an everlasting love of our beautiful language along the way.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Monday, September 28, 2015

My 15 Seconds of Fame

When Pope Francis was leaving St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on September 24, 2015, I gave him a nervous, friendly wave, and he responded in kind.

He returned a small wave, for a nanosecond, before greeting a group of nuns behind and to the side of me. I had been trying not to block their view, which is how I found myself in "open field" as he walked by.

I had volunteered to help with the media during the event, but... as is the story of my life... I received much more in return than what I had given.




View on YouTube.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

9/11 Memoirs of an Invisible Man

I've updated a small Pinterest site I posted several years ago about Verizon's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. You can view it here -- and already nearly half the photos are no longer archived on the company's website, so I'm glad I downloaded them when I did.

I had an unobstructed, panoramic view of the attacks from Verizon offices on the 32nd Floor of 1095 Avenue of the Americas, and I worked straight through for the next two days, returning home on my wedding anniversary. My job was to help represent the company in the aftermath, and I've never been prouder of every one of my co-workers, especially those -- union-represented workers and top management alike -- who rushed to the scene to begin recovery efforts.

At the time, I couldn't grasp the experience. I felt largely empty, worried about my family, but relieved to be busy just the same. I remember images -- for example, a group of machine-gun wielding soldiers standing guard around a makeshift campfire in the middle of deserted Fifth Avenue late that evening -- but, really, there were no words.


A year later, I happened to be at a conference in Boston, and I remember 9/11/02 as a windy day, full of foreboding clouds and melancholy... fitting weather for a memorial day of sorts.

During a break a little after 10:30 a.m., I went to an indoor mall to buy Nancy an anniversary gift. I was greeted by the sight of people frozen in place on the shopping concourse... two old ladies holding hands, other shoppers simply standing still, a woman with a stroller looking like a statue. I was taken aback. I was the only one walking through this scene. I thought, for a moment, that I had stumbled across a piece of performance art. Then, I thought I was dreaming -- the way I used to when I was a boy -- and that time had stopped for everyone else except me.

Soon a voice over a loudspeaker thanked everyone, and the shoppers resumed their motions in unison. Evidently, this was a moment of silence in observance of when the second tower had collapsed. I walked into a Museum of Boston shop and fingered an Edward Hopper print of a lighthouse. But I didn't buy it, mostly because the young woman behind the sales counter was crying, and I felt as if I should leave her alone.

I spent the rest of the day apparently invisible, because people ignored me -- walking right into and seemingly through me, engaging in conversations while I stood between them. I wound up buying an anniversary gift from a vendor who didn't even look up from her phone.

Feeling disoriented, I wandered into small St. Francis' Chapel, adjacent to Hynes Auditorium. A young woman wearing a red, white and blue scarf stood in front of the altar. She had a mane of blonde hair that looked like a veil, as if she were an angel. When the chapel started to fill for a 9/11 memorial service, I decided to stay.

See related post,
"How Long Until the Elmos Show Up at Ground Zero."
A bearded young priest presided over a reverent prayer service: a few readings, a few songs, a poem from a local nun. The closing song -- the funeral hymn, "You Are Mine" -- hit me hard. "I will take you home," sang the angel, and at those words I finally, after a full year, started to openly cry. It took me several minutes to compose myself to leave. When I did, the priest was waiting at the door so I shook his hand and quietly said "thank you."

I passed the Sheraton's piano bar on the way back to my own hotel. A jazz trio was playing "Autumn Breeze," and through the windows I could see the end-of-summer outside world literally being buffeted about by the tail end of a hurricane named Gustave. No one around me seemed to notice or care about the outside winds, or the music. But I was enchanted. I clapped when the song ended, and the trio looked up and smiled and waved to me to sit at the bar.

I spent the rest of the evening nursing beers while enjoying the music, and scribbling furiously on a legal pad. I was writing down everything I could recall about 9/11. Somehow -- and this is the lesson I learned that day -- in the very act of writing, I no longer felt out of place and I no longer felt invisible.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Go Set a Calendar Reminder for Sept. 21

Have you read the recently published “Go Set a Watchman”? One of my favorite writers, Harper Lee (see here), had originally submitted this novel for publication in 1957.

Her editor, Tay Hohoff, was enamored by the childhood flashbacks in the novel, and she recognized Ms. Lee’s obvious talent. But Ms. Hohoff also recognized a weak plot, and she encouraged the extensive re-write that eventually became “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The two novels offer the same voice, many of the same characters and the same writing style (take that, Truman Capote), but they are vastly different in their appeal and impact.

Every writer needs an editor, and every great writer craves constructive criticism.

That’s why I’m excited our IABC-New Jersey chapter is sponsoring a writing workshop by none other than Ann Wylie on Sept. 21, 2015, on the Fairleigh Dickinson University campus.

Ann, who would no doubt delete the “none other than” in the previous sentence, is the author of more than a dozen learning tools that help people improve their communications skills. Her bio itself is an interesting read, including the highlight that “Ann’s popular writing workshops take her from Atlanta to Amsterdam, from Boston to Brussels, from Hollywood to Helsinki, and from Portland to Paris.”

And, on Sept. 21, she’ll bring her writing workshop to Madison, N.J.

Sign-up information and details are posted on Eventbrite, and we are offering tickets for this full-day workshop at below-market prices (especially for IABC members). It promises to be a great kickoff to another great season of professional development events sponsored by IABC-New Jersey.

The best part? This is the kind of professional development program that can benefit everyone.

Even the next Harper Lee.


This post originally appeared on the IABC-New Jersey website.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Write As If Syd Penner Were Editing


Dance like nobody's watching. Sing like nobody's listening. But write as if Syd Penner's looking over your shoulder.

Penner was a legendary copy editor for the New York Daily News in the pre-Internet era. While a Google search of my new Verizon colleague “Arianna Huffington” plus “Huffington Post” will yield about 456,000 results in 0.36 seconds, a similar search of Penner’s affiliation with the News yields just three results. Try it.

As Paul LaRosa notes, Penner wrote an internal newsletter called “The Printer’s Devil” about the craft of writing and telling stories on a deadline.

Late in his career, Penner also helped train new writers in NYNEX’s PR department – and I had my first news release drafts marked up by this unfailingly polite and obsessively thorough editor.

I should have kept souvenir copies of the handiwork of Jimmy Breslin’s editor, but instead I've salvaged only one old mimeographed copy of “The Printer’s Devil.” Read this, and you will appreciate immediately that, to Syd Penner, every word was precious.


Years later, another colleague – Steve Marcus, a former award-winning reporter for The New York Post – had the task of editing the copy produced by Verizon’s PR department. Marcus knew Penner well, and he had the same respectful touch in eviscerating all our news releases and blog posts.

I’ve seen many executives retire, and most are barely remembered the day after they leave. Such is the nature of business.

Yet Steve retired about two months ago (that's his empty office in the photo), and there’s still a gaping hole here. Such is the nature of art.

Without Penner and Marcus, we’re all on our own – and we’re scrambling. Many folks here have turned to our colleague Harry Mitchell for editing help in the interim, but Harry too is retiring from Verizon at the end of this week.

With the prospect of losing even Harry as a sanity check, another colleague, Libby Jacobson, recently sent me an email about a Techdirt article, “Comcast Really Wants Me To Stop Calling Their Top Lobbyist A ‘Top Lobbyist’.”

She bet I could come up with some tips based on that post, wherein a PR person parses the legal definition of the word “lobbyist” in defiance of common sense – and, in the process, generates much more unwanted attention.

I’ll take that bet, Libby.

Here are five tips to help writers in PR departments survive without a Syd Penner at their side:

1. Respect the Word.

A duck is a duck is a duck. A crash landing isn’t an anomaly. A lobbyist isn’t a chief diversity officer.

PR should simplify. That’s hardly ever the case, I know, because I’m also the author of Verizon’s earnings releases – but at least that should be the goal.

2. Keep Reading.

Even worse than PR is the Orwellian doublespeak of politics, and I highly recommend books such as Barton Swaim’s recent “The Speechwriter.” It’s interesting, and entertaining, to read about how politicians communicate – and politics is a field that, by its nature, is always on the leading edge of new communications and PR practices.

3. Keep Reading, Without Prejudice.

Still, it isn’t helpful to only read about things that could help you on the job. My wife is the most educated person I know – largely because she loves reading newspapers from cover to cover. She discovers new ideas because she isn’t only reading about things she thinks she wants to read about.

Recently, I read a marvelous memoir, “Another Little Piece of My Heart,” by the writer Richard Goldstein. His career path and point of view on many topics are seemingly the exact opposite of mine. Yet I was thrilled to read about his own Syd Penner – the legendary, and Google-famous, Clay Felker. Through the magic of the Internet, I even sent Richard a note about the book. He politely replied, and the universe didn’t implode.

4. Love Your Editor.

Everyone needs an editor. You should jump at any opportunity to work with someone to improve your writing. One organization I’m involved with – IABC’s New Jersey chapter – is hosting a day-long writing workshop with Ann Wylie, a talented editor who is well-known in PR circles. If you can be in Madison, NJ, on Sept. 21, there probably isn’t a better use of your time.

5. Handle Words With Care.

This has never been more important. Another magical side of the Internet is that every word you write now lives forever.

One of my favorite books (well, at least it had been a favorite before my wife and I raised two daughters) ends by evoking the secret of durable pigments.

One reason we all want to write and post and share is that we want to leave our mark on the world. Social media is the new durable pigment, and if we want to communicate something that has lasting value, we should choose our words wisely.

The only known photo of me and Harry Mitchell.
That’s why, in this very sentence, I’ll simply mention the names of Harry Mitchell and Syd Penner.

Goodbye, Harry. We’ll miss you. I hope to be seeing you soon, forever linked with Mr. Penner, on Google.

---

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Re-reading "Lolita" in Middle Age

I was half the age of Nabokov’s protagonist when I first read “Lolita” – and it enthralled me. As of my last reading, just a few weeks ago, I’m about the age of Nabokov himself when he wrote his love letter to the English language. And it repelled me. (You can always count on a Goodreads review for a fancy prose style.)

I guess I’m a grownup now. I’ve helped raise two daughters in the meantime. And, over time, I’ve come to understand that people aren't as smart as they think they are. Even the genius Vladimir.

“Genius” is a word that appears many times in this book, by the way – the author seems quite enamored with it. Odd that there are very few words relating to the impact of the nearly world-immolating warfare that had ended just a few years prior. Or, say, any description of how Humbert and Lolita might have managed to spend Christmas Eve together.

That would be too prosaic. And this, this book, is a work of Art. The real-life horror in “Lolita” is masked by language -- the demeaning and beating of women, deaths by childbirth and cancer, Humbert’s monumental callousness and narcissism, poor Charlotte… As for the great poetic love, it’s really nothing more than pedophilia played out in prostitution, threats and manipulation, as Lolita cried herself to sleep every night.

There’s nothing wrong with artifice and pretty words. Every Memorial Day weekend, I find myself re-reading “The Great Gatsby,” and it never ceases to enchant me. It’s become a favorite of one of my daughters too.

I actually enjoy life as a sentimental wretch. It’s just that I now realize that Humbert Humbert isn’t a kindred spirit. Instead, Humbert is really just Vladimir’s comical Gaston Godin character with a better haircut.

And, about that haircut, Vladimir... I mean, about that parenthetical scene in “Lolita” where a barber in Kasbeam cuts Humbert’s hair while telling stories of his long-dead son as if he were still alive…

I wonder if perhaps his story would have been the more poetic one to tell.



Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Prayer for New Orleans... in Black and White

I had intended to post a collection of colorful photos on Facebook from a recent visit to New Orleans, where I met up with my sister from California.

But the photos told a more important story in black and white. Let me explain:

It's now been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, and I found a city full of warmth (literal and figurative), sound (noise and music) and smell (food and garbage) in its wake.

New Orleans was also bathed in red -- on the occasion of its annual Red Dress Run.

The Times-Picayune was an unapologetic cheerleader of this event, portraying it as a massive dress-up of harmless fun designed to raise $200,000 for local charities. Silly feature stories -- "Were you among those who dared to bare (your legs)?" and "On the hunt for the perfect red dress" -- were accompanied by photos of young men wearing red skirts, dresses and negligees.

Meanwhile, the comments sections to these same stories suggested a darker side -- just an excuse for people... primarily rich white people... to throw on something red and drink: "Mardi Gras minus the floats... a big frat party with a bunch of post-college desperados... another embarrassing display for people to be obnoxious and narcissistic..."

I don't know what the truth is -- but the only images I remember, like one below, are decidedly black and white.


Here's a boy, drenched in sweat, tap dancing on the sidewalk of Bourbon Street for spare change. It's high noon and literally 100 degrees in the hard-to-find shade. In the background, the boy's young mother is urging him and his younger brother to keep dancing.

A sea of people pass them by. Almost all the people on the street are white. Almost all the people on the periphery -- the street performers, the livery drivers, the waitresses -- are black.

I'm right in the middle of the street, and I blend in perfectly with all the faces. The only way I stand apart is that I'm not wearing red.

I'm in a vast crowd of sloppy drunks, in all stages of red undress. A frat boy impatiently pounds the hood of an ambulance trying to snake its way up the street. A bouncer sidles up and jovially offers me a "Big-Ass Beer" in a go-cup, inviting me inside, where there's air conditioning blasting from a huge open entranceway and where, he laughs, "There's no cover charge for white folks."

Further up the street, a chanting, raucous crowd circles a DJ blasting rhythmic music. In the center of the circle, a fat middle-aged white man bends over, supporting his hands on either side of a portable sound system, while another fat middle-aged white man simulates having sex with him from behind. Both are wearing red dresses.

Still further up the street, an American flag hangs next to a red dress mounted on an adjoining flagpole. On a second-floor balcony, so many college-aged drinkers are packed together that the wood flooring is noticeably buckling from their weigh. The coeds resemble the young women in the University of Alabama's sorority recruitment video.

A nearby signpost tells me I've reached the corner of St. Ann Street. Its namesake, in my religious tradition, is the mother of Mary and the grandmother of Christ. She is also known as Mother of the Poor. And, yes, in iconography she wears a red dress.


The next morning, I took an air-conditioned minibus tour of the town. A downpour the previous evening had washed away the smell of the garbage on Bourbon Street. We visited the City of the Dead, where our jovial tour director, a longtime resident named Dino, told tales of people being buried alive.

Dino also drove us past small houses still devastated and gutted from 10 years ago in the Upper 9th Ward. He told us he couldn't drive us into the even-more-Katrina-damaged Lower 9th Ward because residents there had long ago grown weary of all the tour buses gawking at their neighborhood. They had started to charge tour operators admission fees.

It's all so complicated. The older I get, the more I see shades of gray. So instead of a Facebook post, let me offer this prayer:

Dearest St. Ann, Mother of the Poor, on this 10th anniversary of an American tragedy, help us change our world for the better. Show us the rich colors of people celebrating together, not separately. Extend the joy and generosity of spirit found in New Orleans to reach all in poverty, all still waiting for a home and all still searching for answers.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

All My Friends Are Dead

Randy Johnson, inducted into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame today, is an improbable role model.

To paraphrase Crash Davis (my fictional post-Atticus Finch role model), when Randy was a baby he got a gift: the gods reached down and turned his left arm into a thunderbolt.

But that’s not why he’s a role model. This photo is why...


Because Randy Johnson has (excuse the expression) developed into a talented photographer.

He didn't rest on his laurels. He never stopped learning. He followed his passion.

He inspires me to try to surprise people, in a good way.

---------
People misjudge people. I’d be willing to bet that Randy’s perceived cold and aloof personality had something to do with his awkward attempts to fit in to the Yankee clubhouse and answer trite, repetitive questions from reporters.

No one, outside of your closest loved ones, knows who you really are. Everyone else puts you in a little box and tries to keep you there.

Recently a doctor read my chart before a routine checkup and commented, with a note of surprise, “So, you’re still working?” — apparently a strange phenomenon for a middle-aged man in Bergen County, NJ, in the year 2015. You can imagine the rest. He assumed I golfed (I don’t); assumed my wife and I would be traveling this summer (sorry, other plans); assumed he knew my taste in music and politics and that my irritability was a function of my age.

“No," I said, "it’s because all my friends are dead."

I don’t think he got the joke.

Five years ago, I visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and was seemingly touched on the arm by a baseball god...

Photo credit: Joe Zwilling

I have been (we all have been) given great gifts, and I have since vowed to never to let anyone pigeonhole me.

Yes, that’s me, kneeling down in front of a photo of Tom Seaver, the famous vintner.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Grateful Dad

My wife secretly took this photo of me and my daughter the other day -- an auspicious date in music history,

She captioned it, "Lazy Sunday, dad-and-daughter style."

There's just a touch of grey here too.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Elvis Has Left the Building

My long-time colleague Steve Marcus retired this past week. Here’s what I said about him at his reception, before he left the building...

Steve modestly wanted a small reception for close friends, but we soon realized the conference room we had scheduled was too small.

Like the police chief in the movie “Jaws” (released 40 years ago), we quickly realized, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Why? Because Steve has influenced so many people over the years… He’s been a mentor and trusted colleague to all of us here. This is truly worth celebrating. As EB White once noted: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer."

Nearly 30 years ago, when I had just started at a corporation called NYNEX, we got word that our largest subsidiary, New York Telephone, had just made a major hire -- an award-winning reporter from the New York Post and one of the members of the Inner Circle, a great journalistic institution whose roster is made up of legendary New York City political and community-interest reporters.

Of course, I only knew Steve by reputation back then – which could be summed up by everyone’s reaction at the time: “Thank God, now we know everything will be OK… we’ve got Steve Marcus working for us.”

And since then, I’ve been honored to work at Steve’s side:

· At New York Telephone, he was our chief on-camera spokesman, because on TV and radio his directness and his concern for customers was so self-evident.

· NYNEX became Bell Atlantic, and Steve was the company’s international spokesperson for a time.

· When Bell Atlantic became Verizon, Steve was the company’s voice during our first labor negotiations and later, as most of you know him, he became the company’s chief editor and voice of sanity.

Over all this time, I’ve never heard a single negative thing said about Steve. This is almost impossible in today’s world – but it speaks to his work ethic and talent and the respect he shows everyone around him.

Steve, we’re going to miss you. You’ve earned our respect. I think the general reaction here today is, “Oh God, will everything be OK without Steve Marcus working for us?”

One final note… Steve would have officially worked for Verizon 30 years next month. But I think it’s especially fitting that he’s leaving before then.

There’s an old journalistic tradition of putting the number 30 at the end of every story that’s filed.

I think it’s symbolic that there’s not a 30 on Steve’s career at Verizon, because, Steve, all your friends here know that this is far from the end of your story.

Cheers to Steve Marcus…

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Oh, For the Love of Instagram...

Of all the social media sites, my favorite -- by far -- has been Instagram. It's simple, it's immediate, it tends to be nurturing. The best part is that in order to play, you have to create something. Although it emphasizes visuals, I've come across captions that are clever and insightful -- and the mere fact of sizing up a scene and trying to think of a way to capture it has made me a better writer. I think.

Well, at least a better observer... and that's half the battle.

Sometimes -- from the unlikeliest of sources -- even art emerges from among the bright red hearts, playful emojis and hashtags, and the extraordinary variety of ordinary life.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Machiavellian PR: Deleted Tweets

If you really want a tweet to be noticed, should you delete it?

That seems to be the PR lesson from two recent news stories: Twitter's shutdown of a site that saved politicians' deleted tweets, and one CEO's Twitter musings in the midst of M&A speculation.

Since-deleted but widely-reported tweets may be as old as Twitter itself -- which is to say that images of Anthony Weiner have been burned into my memory since 2011. But as time passes, I wonder if there are Machiavellian PR practitioners (as opposed to the garden-variety Orwellian PR practitioners) who intentionally post and then delete tweets for the sheer impact.

You can tip the media by saying you're shocked, shocked, that something like this could be posted -- in much the same way that you can ensure coverage by having someone slip the media what would otherwise be a press release (remember those?) and calling it a "leaked document."

Since we've long (since March 2015) been living in the Periscope Age, we've already seen the rise of behind-the-scenes, often "unauthorized" videos too. None I've yet seen has been blatantly manipulative, but already my email inbox has been inundated with PR experts pitching me on tried-and-true methods of integrating Periscope into media plans.

Imagine being an editor or journalist (remember those?) in today's world. You already know that everyone you talk to has an agenda... but now everyone has a shiny new app or technology tool to try to fool you too.

In that sort of environment, how can PR people break through the clutter?

Here's one approach:

Treat reporters and editors like real people. Help them do their jobs. Invest the time and effort to become a trusted source.

You can still be honest, and be human, and be an unapologetic advocate for your company or your cause.

Not everything in the world is fake. Take, for example, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award that ESPN gave to Caitlyn Jenner just the other day.

Wait... what??*


*- And it turns out this was true all along.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Three Images: One Night in New Jersey

I live in suburban New York. Which is another way to say, “I live in New Jersey.”

It does have its charms, though — many of which I post about at bvar.tumblr.com — and last night is a case in point.

Last night, I walked to my hometown’s annual carnival. It’s usually held in the field behind the police station, and I had fond memories of taking my daughters there when they were little girls.

Along the way, I saw New Jersey’s version of the popular Manhattanhenge phenomenon: Pink lawn flamingos placed by the local Boy Scout troop were in alignment with the setting sun…




Posted to a telephone pole nearby was the advertisement for the carnival. It was charming and cheerily yellow — like my memory of my girls — but the reality was a little less bright…



With the carnival moved to the Elks Club parking lot, I didn’t spend much time there. Without a child at my side, I didn’t feel as if I belonged. So I strolled to the nearby Little League field, and saw this…



One of the sponsors is Chico’s Bail Bonds. I know, it’s a“Bad News Bears” reference. But I love the image, especially with the American flag in the background and the slogan, “Let Freedom Ring.”

This is New Jersey, unfiltered.



Sunday, May 24, 2015

What Fresh Hell Is This?

Advice to My 22-Year-Old Self I Won’t Dare Post on LinkedIn


With everyone offering advice to their younger selves on LinkedIn this graduation season (#IfIWere22), I find myself -- in the middle of my years -- being tormented by Dante Alighieri.

With Dad at my college graduation
He has been following me these past few weeks, as if daring me to find some meaning to it all.

I’ll take that dare, Dante. You may have journeyed to Hell and back with Virgil, but I’ve recently journeyed to New York and Minnesota and Washington DC with my cell phone. While I haven’t pretended to find eternal truths, I’ve experienced some interesting moments.

By way of background: My 22-year-old self had already given up his boyhood dream of becoming an astronomer and moving to San Francisco. In fact, after all these years, I’ve never even visited San Francisco. But I have a wonderful family; my life has been filled with productive work; and, once, I wrote a book, riddled with so many Dante references that even its last word was “stars.”

So I offer here my own mini-trilogy of life lessons.


Lesson One: Magic Exists

Just last month, late on Holy Thursday evening, I took my 22-year-old daughter to a reading of excerpts from Dante’s “Inferno” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. As one of the perhaps dozen actual readers of my book, my daughter had always promised that someday we would go to this annual reading together.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Maundy Thursday
I was excited. Days earlier, I brushed up by listening to an audio of John Cleese reading Robert Pinsky’s translation of excerpted cantos from the “Inferno.” None of it resonated with me, however, and at one point near the end Cleese broke into the voice of a Monty Python character. For a moment, from the depths of Hell, I thought I heard that there was a penguin on the telly.

Undaunted, I drove my daughter into the city and marveled at the grand, cavernous cathedral. We excitedly took seats on uncomfortable wooden folding chairs right in the front row, and we waited for award-winning modern-day poets to interpret one of our favorite works of literature.

More than three hours later, we were massively disappointed. There was a lot of earnestness in the readings, but no heart. Three readers recited cantos in the original Italian, but there was no rhythm or expressiveness in their language -- no discernible tercets, no rhymes. As soon as the last reader said the word “stelle,” my daughter and I were out the door and headed to a dive bar off West 110th Street.

I was by far the oldest person there, and one of the few without a tattoo. My daughter and I sat under a framed photo of a sheep, and I ordered a very cold beer from very Irish bartender.

“What the hell was that?” I said to my daughter. “I got nothing out of that, and ‘The Inferno’ used to be my favorite. Is it me? A mid-life crisis?”

“That’s OK, Dad,” she said. “My friends and I are all going through a quarter-life crisis, so I can relate. Things change.”

Then she patted my hand tenderly, and the previous three hours disappeared… like magic. It was midnight on Good Friday, and I was never happier to be anywhere else, with anyone else, in my life.


Lesson Two: All Children Are Above Average

Fast forward a few weeks:

I’m in a living room in Almost Heaven, Minnesota, visiting my college friend’s elderly parents. We’re sipping coffee while the father reminisces about his military experience during the last days of World War II. Over his shoulder, there’s a framed lithograph of Dante Alighieri in profile, watching me.

Minnesota: almost Heaven
“What’s with the Dante portrait?” I ask after we leave, expecting an involved and quirky story.

“Oh, nothing,” my friend replied. “Mom just likes the print.”

I thought: That’s my point of view, exactly. After all these years, I’ve come to realize that I really don’t enjoy reading the “Divine Comedy”; I just like the thought of being someone who enjoys reading the “Divine Comedy.” I like to pretend I’m special, but I’m really just like everyone else.

There’s a redeeming paradox to this, however, and it had hit me right between my eyes when my first child was born.

Because, and although I do appreciate Garrison Keillor’s wit, that’s precisely a moment in life when you realize that everyone is special.


Lesson Three: The Sidelines Are Not Where You Want to Live Your Life

Now fast forward to last week:

I’m in Washington DC, and walking toward the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. I have the morning to myself, and I want to rekindle my boyhood wonder about space and astronomy. However, I feel invisible -- an insubstantial shade, unconnected to the present-tense people ignoring me or walking right through me, heads bowed, watching their cell phones.

Ironically, there's no space here
At the entrance to the museum, a guard directs me through one door, but once inside another man angrily says that this is not an entrance. We all must pass through metal detectors, and the government security agents slow their disinterested movements as the lines increase in length behind me. The man who yelled at me is now trying to bring a knife into the museum in a plastic shopping bag, and as the agents rustle him aside I slip past unnoticed.

It’s crowded inside. There’s no open space in the Space Museum. Unsupervised children run all around. Everywhere I walk I am seemingly in the line of sight of someone taking a photo. It’s loud, and people crowd three-deep around the exhibits. Nothing about this place seems remotely enchanting. So I leave, disappointed, and rest on a park bench a half block away.

“Hey, get off my bed!” comes an angry shout in my direction.

An imposing, disheveled man is waving his finger at me.

“You’re sitting on my bed! I’m warning you: Get off!”

I do as he says. But before I turn to leave, I make eye contact with the homeless man, and we acknowledge each other’s existence. This surprises him. “I just needed to rest,” I say, “I meant no disrespect.”

This unsettles him. He looks at me cautiously and says, “I meant no disrespect either. I just get mad sometimes.” Then he offers me his hand and says, “I’m sorry.”

I shake it and say, “Good luck,” causing his eyes to turn vacant.

“I don’t believe in luck,” he spits in reply.


So I turn back toward the Mall -- currently under renovation, resembling a pit -- and walk headlong into the nearest museum. It happens to be the National Museum of African Art, and the featured exhibit is “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists.”

My diamante
I laugh when I see the inscription above the entrance, and channel Sheldon Cooper channeling Dorothy Parker. “What fresh Hell is this?” I ask no one, because there’s not another soul in sight.

It’s a wonderful exhibit, dramatically staged on three levels, with 40 works from some of the best known and emerging artists from Africa… all addressing the themes of Dante’s epic poem.

I wish I could show it to you here, but as soon as I raise my cell phone, a security guard runs up to me saying, “No photos! No photos!” I wonder why. With no one else around, the three security guards -- Dante’s minions -- keep following me as I wander through the gallery.

So I look but don’t touch. I don’t take photos. I don’t complain. The art itself is spell-binding.

As I leave I spot a table littered with diamond-shaped cards, inviting guests to compose a “diamante” -- an unrhymed, seven-line poem -- about the exhibit. It’s a contest for visiting school children, but I fill one out myself, using words such as “stalking,” “threatening” and “paranoia,” and comparing the circling guards to dogs.

Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll win the contest.


I’m pretty sure, though, that my diamante put a stake through Dante’s fat heart and drove him from my own bed, because I woke the next morning with everything back in focus. That’s right, Durante, I’m no longer scared of you.

Tim Cook takes an iPhone photo at the 2015 GWU commencement
It was my daughter’s graduation day, in another grand setting: a wide and gentle bluff beneath the Washington Monument, where George Washington University had set up a temporary stage, carnival tents and thousands of folding chairs (#GWCommencement).

I had wanted to leave extra early, to make sure we had seats, but there was a group of us and I didn’t insist -- so we wound up standing in a gentle rain throughout the ceremony.

The commencement speaker, Apple CEO Tim Cook, looked down at me from a large-screen video monitor, as if in parody of Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl television commercial, and said: “The sidelines are not where you want to live your life.”

And yet there I was, literally standing on the sidelines at my daughter’s graduation.

Right then and there, I typed a to-do item into my phone. The due-date is a few years away, addressed to my future 62-year-old self.

It reads simply, “Plan trip to San Francisco.”


And the Point of All This Is...

The point, 22-year-old Bob, is that I can’t give you answers when all the questions keep changing. Even Dante didn’t know what he didn’t know. So show a little faith and, as Mr. Cleese and his colleagues often reminded us, always look on the bright side of life.

Life is messy. It’s forever unfinished, often complicated and sometimes extraordinary, and it renews itself with or without you. Everything matters, because every moment is unique.

Nothing is immutable; not even the stars.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

It's a Bird; It's a Plane; It's a Miracle


“Is that Superman?” I asked, from the back seat of our car.

We were stopped at a light late last night, at the intersection of Court and River streets in Hackensack, and my question came during a lull in conversation.

My wife was driving, with our older daughter in the front passenger seat (she claims to get car sick when sitting in the back) and our younger daughter (our baby, who is over 21 years old) beside me in back.

“Yes, it is,” said my wife, matter of factly.

“Wait! What?” my younger daughter exclaimed.

“Something wrong, Maddy?” I asked, pointing to the second-story window of the office building on 60 Court St. “See, there’s a large cutout Superman near the book case in that office.”

“Oh,” Maddy said, “I just thought you had finally gone crazy.”

“Finally?”

“You have to admit, it’s a thin line,” she said. “What’s worse is that Mom wasn’t concerned at all. She simply accepted the fact that you had seen Superman.”

“Well, she’s used to me,” I said.

“I think that’s sweet,” said Cathy, the daughter who always cons me out of riding shotgun.

This had been the tone of our family conversation ever since we had retrieved Maddy from the train station in Newark a half hour earlier.

Through some quirk of fate – Maddy has a job interview in the city today, and Cathy wanted to crash somewhere closer than her apartment after an evening graduate class at Montclair State – both daughters were home last night.

So the four of us were together in the car for the first time in many, many months. Like a jazz band that resumes playing together after many years apart, it didn’t take long for our conversation to fall into the teasing, laughter-filled and jumbled rhythms of our younger selves, a dozen years ago, packed in a car and headed for vacation on the Cape.

I closed my eyes and enjoyed the music: Maddy was telling a funny story about trying to adopt a rescue Flemish Giant rabbit from an animal shelter in Canada; Cathy was talking about horses, of course, and working with autistic children; and everyone independently had somehow known about and played Google Map’s recently introduced Pacman game.

Source:Flickr Creative Commons
So it has occurred to me that during this Easter season some higher power really was in New Jersey last night. It circled the globe so fast it halted, and then reversed, the direction of Earth on its axis.

And as I have done every morning for half my life, when I left for work a few hours ago, I whispered goodbye to each daughter outside her bedroom door – and I told them I loved them.

Thank you, Superman, for turning back time for just one night. This morning, this crazy man was no longer whispering into any empty bedrooms.