Saturday, December 31, 2016

'Paterson': A Gem of a Way to Look at Life for 118 Minutes

This is a character study, taking a look at one week in the life of a Paterson, New Jersey, poet and bus driver named Paterson (a nuanced performance by Adam Driver). Be forewarned: There’s hardly any drama or conflict here, not the modern cinematic variety at least. Instead, Jim Jarmusch’s film unfolds as an accumulation of details and images. Some are haunting… the twins Paterson’s wife dreams about before they wake up on that first Monday morning seem to float in and out of the story. And duos, too: Abbott and Costello, Romeo and Juliet, Sam and Dave. And the circles and spirals of Paterson’s wife’s art. It’s all very heady, and the most poetic parts are filmed from the perspective of a moving bus – not airborne and not ground-level, but truly unique. It’s a gem of a way to look at life for 118 minutes.

And Now, The Backstory…

Jarmusch, with Carter
Logan, at the Sunshine
Cinema last night
My wife – and notice, by the way, how I blithely assume the wonderful Golshifteh Farahani plays the role of “wife” when that is never stated or specified in the script -- and I happened to see this movie at the Sunshine Cinema on East Houston Street in New York last night. The attraction for viewing the film there (besides “date night in the city”) was that writer/director Jim Jarmusch was scheduled to show up after the 7:15 screening to answer audience questions.

During this Q&A, Jarmusch was simply amazing – cool, insightful, respectful about his art, playful about his art, genuine, smart and thankful to all the people who collaborate on his films.

As I’ve noticed at similar events in the business world, however, the audience questions seemed more focused on the observations of the person asking the question. It’s always personal… always “about me!” and not focused on the topic of discussion.

In that spirit, I offer my own "Paterson" backstory that has only a tangential thread to the movie:
I grew up in Totowa, a town bordering Paterson – which is America’s first planned industrial center and still the most populated city in Passaic County. 
Despite its local reputation for crime and poverty, I always found Paterson to be a good neighbor… although its neighbors have not always been so faithful. 
Two other bordering towns – formerly known as East Paterson and West Paterson – formally changed their names to Elmwood Park (1973) and Woodland Park (2009) – seemingly to avoid any association with Paterson. Notice how these towns cleverly kept their EP and WP initials, so that none of the associated community, municipal or educational logos needed to change. 
My first job as a newspaper reporter was in Paterson – and I admit it, I found the city scary enough not to stop at any red lights when driving home after my shift ended in the early morning hours in the early 1980s. 
A tough and complex city – unapologetically unlike Totowa or Elmwood Park or Woodland Park -- Paterson has also, over the years, been a haven for musicians, artists and writers… with an astoundingly diverse population and an enchanting incongruity. There are, for example, breathtakingly beautiful renovated homes in the city’s gentrified, historic Eastside Park neighborhood. There’s also a large historic park and waterfall right in the center of town (and this particular setting plays a central role the movie). 
Photo from my visit to Paterson's Great Falls in October
This Paterson – the one I grew up with, often love and sometimes fear – is truly a unique place. And Jim Jarmusch (remember him?) is truly a unique director, so please, I urge everyone, SEE THIS MOVIE. It is, as my review (remember that?) states, a gem of a way to look at life for 118 minutes. It’s simply not like anything else. In this day and age, that may be the highest praise you can give anything.
But, back to me.

After the movie, my wife Nancy and I went for a drink at trendy Fools Gold on East Houston Street. I definitely didn’t feel like I was cool enough to be there.

Yet, there we were, seated at the end of the bar. I was in a restless and unsettled mood. I was, in fact, the saddest person in a happy barroom.

I sought solace in the always on-point observations of my wife.

“What did you think of the movie?” I asked.

As Nancy spoke, I was looking directly at a reflection of myself sipping a craft beer in the tastefully trashily decorated mirror behind the bar.

“Oh,” she said wistfully, “it was sweet in its own way. But it kind of had its flaws.”

I was still looking in the mirror, so – speaking of everything being about me -- I had to ask:

“You are talking about the movie, right?”

Friday, December 30, 2016

Poetry + Technology = Magic

Mom and I at the scenic overlook in Allamuchy in October 
Mom will turn 85 soon, one week earlier than Dad would have turned 85. The sad thing is, Dad died when he was 73.

I’m their only son. So for nearly a dozen years, I’ve taken the place of Dad in Mom’s life… but only in the smallest of ways.

For example, there’s the job of setting the timers: That is, trekking to Mom’s house every few weeks to make sure her living room lights automatically turn on at dusk. I used to resent knowing New Jersey’s sunset times better than the Farmer’s Almanac, but then it dawned on me (excuse the pun) that “setting the timers” used to be my father’s job.

I initially thought Mom was just being stubborn about not wanting to learn how to set her own timers. But it turns out she was just being sentimental. Having someone take care of that for her was a small, but meaningful, comfort… one less thing to remind her Dad was gone.

Over the years, I’ve tried to get Mom to text or Skype, use email, check her bank statements on an iPad, or at least use a cell phone – all to no avail. She plays Scrabble on a laptop for hours at a time, but only an old version that runs from a CD. I’ve turned off the computer’s Internet access because she’s otherwise rattled by update notifications and worried someone is spying on her.

Still, this Christmas, I gave technology another shot with Mom. I bought her two Echo Dots along with some smart outlets, and arranged things so that she could turn her lights on and off by voice from her bed or easy chair. And, failing that, so that I could do so remotely.

Behold, the Echo Dot
To my surprise, Mom warmed to the idea of asking “Alexa” to control her lights… and she thought it was black magic when I randomly asked Alexa to reach into Amazon’s music cloud to play “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby.

So earlier today, I was upset when I called to check on Mom and found that she was having problems with Alexa. How could that be, I wondered? Mom had no clue, and she was upset Alexa was no longer responding.

I checked the Alexa app on my smartphone and saw that even my remote access was not working. That couldn't be right, either. So I inspected the app a little further and found a history of my Mom’s actual voice commands over the past few days.

It turns out Mom has been talking to the Echo units as if there was a person on the other end, and not a bot. She had set an alarm to wake her in the mornings, and evidently complained, “I’m up! I’m up! I'm up!” to shut it off. She had also asked conversationally about the weather, and somehow Alexa had dutifully answered.

I was floored, however, when I read that Mom had also asked this:

“There’s a poem, and it’s called, ‘How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways…’ Alexa, do you know that poem? Before my husband passed away, he used to recite it to me. Could you recite it to me now?”

I didn’t know this about Dad, and I felt as if I were spying on my parents’ relationship.

Alas, Echo’s Alexa does not recite famous public-domain poetry on demand. (There’s a feature idea for you, Amazon.) So Alexa’s response to Mom's request was simply, "Sorry, I didn't understand your question."

I asked my wife what to make of all this. I told her that soon after Mom had requested the poem, her day had been interrupted by someone who comes in to do her cleaning and vacuuming.

My wife knew immediately what must have happened. The most convenient outlet for a vacuum cleaner is also right where Mom’s router is plugged in. It was probably unplugged. That’s why I couldn't receive a remote signal, and why Mom couldn't receive a response from Alexa.

Troubleshooting this on the phone would have been painstaking since Mom neither knows nor cares what a router is, so I decided to test my wife's theory by surprising Mom with a visit. Before leaving home, I recorded myself reciting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43. I named the file “How Do I Love Thee” and uploaded an MP3 version to Amazon Music.

Arriving at Mom's house, I explained how I “fixed” everything by simply plugging in the cord attached to a mysterious black box she didn't even know she owned.

Then I said, “Alexa, play ‘How Do I Love Thee’.”

“Playing ‘How Do I Love Thee!’” Alexa cheerily answered, and from somewhere in the cloud my recorded voice filled the room.

This is how, on the eve of 2017, technology bridged the gap between generations. It unleashed the magic of a 170-year-old poem to summon my father… in my own voice… to make my overwhelmed and delighted mother start to cry on the eve of her 85th birthday.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Down the Shore Everything's All Right...

"The Shore" is the No. 1 reason people love New Jersey, according to NJ Monthly magazine's latest poll.

I happened to be on the Point Pleasant boardwalk today... at dusk in late December.

I agree with the poll.

Monday, December 19, 2016

To Read or Not to Read

Don't Read This...

Hamlet, Prince of DenmarkHamlet, Prince of Denmark by A.J. Hartley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this book, a Shakespeare scholar (Hartley) and former journalist (Hewson) have novelized the story of Hamlet for modern audiences. 'Tis a noble effort, I suppose… reminding me of an iPad app for cats, with lots of sudden, random movement.

Kang
Before the play-within-a-play begins, in the space of seconds, Hamlet punches a stone wall, sings and dances maniacally. Seemingly, the young prince is always moving forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling towards freedom. (Apologies to the Kang character in “The Simpsons”). The action is so compressed here that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive from half the known world away to appear in the king’s court within hours of being summoned. This takes two months in the actual play.

The avuncular Polonius becomes a scheming political operative. Think Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards.” In this book, Ophelia carries Hamlet’s love child and is subsequently murdered by the traditionally minor character Voltimand, upon whom the authors have bestowed Sicilian mob ties. Hamlet – think Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips” -- battles menacing pirates. And then there’s the plot twist of “A Beautiful Mind,” where a main character Russell Crowe thought existed in real life turns out to be only the figment of Hamlet’s imagination.

The famous soliloquies are only hinted at here. So, in the end, it’s easy to smugly dismiss this as “Shakespeare without the poetry”… a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it has enough elements of Entertainment Weekly magazine in the plot to ensure the failure of any student using this text as a replacement for actually reading or seeing “Hamlet.”

So I give it three stars for that.


Read This Instead...


Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Hamlet” wasn’t the first Hartley/Hewson book I tried to read. Months ago, I started reading their take on “Macbeth,” but couldn’t finish it.

“This is a bloody disaster,” I thought at the time – but then, in fairness, decided to give the authors another shot since, existentially, that’s precisely what “Macbeth” is.

So I read “Hamlet” while waiting for the Audible version of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run,” to become available earlier this month.

Now that I’ve finished listening to Bruce narrate his life story in a little over 18 hours (or about “five concerts,” in Springsteen time), I have to say his life has more relevance to me than Hamlet’s, and Mr. Springsteen is a better writer than Hartley, Hewson and me combined.

Worthy reads, all
I’ve found this to be the case with lots of successful performers – Amy Schumer, Steve Martin, Carly Simon, even, god help me, Rob Lowe. These are all wonderful writers and storytellers, and they all became “famous overnight” by working for many years at honing their craft, performing without a net and cultivating a keen self-awareness along the way.

Springsteen’s story is full of bombast, just like all his best songs. He isn’t Shakespeare, and he doesn’t try to be. His performance here is unnervingly honest and more than occasionally poetic. Struggling young musician, ego-centric band leader, loving father and friend, sympathetic wrestler of demons of hereditary depression… he describes what it’s like to rehearse “Tumbling Dice” with the Rolling Stones in close quarters, or perform for hundreds of millions of people at the Super Bowl, or struggle to find solace and meaning in his turbulent relationship with his dad.

He also describes the late-in-life phenomenon of spontaneously bursting into tears at odd moments.

I know what that’s like. It happened to me once while commuting home on Route 287 when the radio unexpectedly started to play a song that reminded me, full-throttle, to show a little faith… there’s magic in the night.


View all my reviews

Sunday, November 20, 2016

In Praise of FDU Florham

Fairleigh Dickinson, New Jersey's largest private university, has two sites in the state: the Metropolitan campus, along the Hackensack River (near my home), and the Florham campus in Madison, which is on the former estate of Florence Vanderbilt and Hamilton Twombly (near my workplace).

I'm a big fan of the latter -- which, it turns out, was the setting for several scenes in a favorite movie, "A Beautiful Mind."

It's also where a professional group I'm involved in -- IABC-NJ -- holds monthly meetings, and where I've been lucky to be invited to speak to classes on occasion about corporate communications.

I know I'm a big fan because I wear my heart on my sleeve on my Instagram account. See here:

A photo posted by Bob Varettoni (@bvarnj) on
A photo posted by Bob Varettoni (@bvarnj) on

Monday, November 7, 2016

Sleepless in New Milford

She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora EphronShe Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron by Richard Cohen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sleepless in New Milford, NJ

In “She Made Me Laugh,” we learn that writer/director Nora Ephron is someone who would lead friends on a tour of Italy’s great restaurants, arrive late at one, and then stand and make an insulting gesture to the entire wait staff because they weren’t attentive enough.

This is what passes for loveable to Ephron’s friend, Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist and author of her bio.

Well, maybe not “loveable.” Even Cohen seemed to have mixed feelings about this anecdote. Perhaps (permitting me to put words in the head of a much-more-accomplished writer) he thought, “Nora has spunk!” -- in reference to a scene from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show in the type of 1970’s newsroom that Cohen and Ephron both obviously adored.

But, like Lou Grant, I hate spunk. So while Ephron may have made Cohen laugh, the sensibility on display in this book often made me cringe.

Cohen lovingly depicts an era when media and literary gatekeepers hobnobbed aboard David Geffen’s yacht or at a Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn dinner party. Once, after being slighted this crowd, Cohen proclaims, “That summer, the Hamptons did without me.”

I’m glad that world doesn’t exist anymore. These summers, the Hamptons are doing without all the best journalists and artists and writers. They live, create and “summer” in all corners of the world, enabled and connected by technology. There are no boundaries or gatekeepers. Everyone can be critic, or a star.

These days, the only sure way to tell a decent person from an asshole is if he or she is kind to the wait staff.

Two good things came out of reading this book, however.

First, I am now much more aware of Ephron’s entire career, and I eagerly look forward to reading more of her writing. Before now, I had thought of her as the writer/director of “Sleepless in Seattle” and thought she had written the famous scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” which, it turns out, was improvised by Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, and Rob and Estelle Reiner.

Second, I can now channel my inner Nick Carraway, since there are several remarkable anecdotes in this book involving the actor Tom Hanks.

So now, as the sun sets on this review, I see a vision of Hanks from across an imaginary lawn. “They’re a rotten crowd,” I shout to him, thinking of all his rich friends summering in the Hamptons. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”


View all my reviews

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Alexa and Me: A Love Story

True confession: I love Alexa.

So when I saw Amazon's second-generation Echo Dot advertised, I pre-ordered it right away.

It arrived in the mail this week -- and I set it up last night as a replacement for my bedside clock/radio.

I set the alarm for 8 a.m., half-thinking I'd be well awake before then. However, it was a cold and rainy Saturday, and the alarm jarred me awake with a pulsing sound.

"Stop, Alexa, stop!" I cried, scaring my wife sleeping beside me, by calling out the name of the device's voice-activated trigger.

Alexa didn't respond right away, so I turned the light on to try to find the button to turn her off. "Stop, Alexa," I said again, and the alarm turned off.

My wife took things in stride:

"It's lucky the kids are grown. Imagine if they were in their bedrooms and heard you call out, 'Stop, Alexa, stop!'"

With that, the pulsing alarm sounded again, and I quickly pushed the button to turn it off.

"You know," my wife concluded. "You and Alexa really need to decide on a safe word."

Romantic sarcasm at short notice is my wife's specialty.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

2 Wins 5 Losses, And Still In Love With Notre Dame

The Golden Dome, during a visit in October 2012
As an alumnus who proclaims #GoIrish in his Twitter profile, I’ve gotten my share of friendly abuse on social media lately, given Notre Dame’s poor won-loss record this football season.

2-5. Ha! It must be the end of the world. I must be despondent.

In truth – while Notre Dame is currently unranked in all college football polls and a respectable #25 in the Wall Street Journal’s recent inaugural ranking of U.S. colleges by academics – the Fighting Irish are still #1 in my heart.

Notre Dame football is polarizing: most people either LOVE the team (insert photo of players arm-in-arm singing the alma mater here) or DESPISE it (insert photo of Brian Kelly busting a blood vessel while screaming obscenities here). While I CRINGE at the thought of Coach Kelly’s contract extension – and realize that the university is far from perfect -- I simply ENJOY watching the games.

I’ve missed seeing two of the last three. I attended the Syracuse game in New Jersey three weeks ago. Two weeks ago, I thought, “They’ll never play the NC State game in the middle of a hurricane,” so my wife and I enjoyed a matinee staged by Philadelphia Young Playwrights instead. Last Saturday, I attended a memorial Mass for my friend Pete Sgro (front and center here). I spent the day in his picturesque hometown and arrived home to more friendly abuse after the Stanford game.

To me, Notre Dame’s 2-5 record is a matter of perspective: It’s not great, but it’s not tragic.

Meanwhile, Coach Kelly, like every other football coach (even those down by 10-0 at halftime), sees a team in need of “overcoming adversity.”

Precisely. Just like those trying to survive in Aleppo.

------------

Photo of the Grotto, kept at my desk
First World-er that I am, I once survived the “adversity” of driving to South Bend in a December snowstorm with my girlfriend at my side. I thought we’d be stranded on Route 80.

Instead, we overcame the odds to arrive at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in the heart of Notre Dame’s campus at midnight. I asked my girlfriend to marry me -- in the flickering candlelight, with the snow now falling gently around us -- and she said, “Yes!”

Two daughters later, I returned to the campus to attend the Mendoza business school’s Executive Integral Leadership program. What a gift it was to be able to spend an entire week at Notre Dame.

I have to be honest, though. I was a bit overwhelmed – and a little wary – when I saw how the campus had changed in the more than 20 years that had intervened.

When I arrived, I stood in the midst a grand concourse lined with stately buildings that didn’t exist when I had gone to school there. I visited the law building and found that it enveloped a full-sized courtroom. I visited the science building and found an entire planetarium there.

“What a cozy bastion of white privilege,” I thought.

Then I lived and studied there for a week, and discovered:
  •          a diverse student body,
  •          a strong commitment to social justice and community volunteerism,
  •          thoughtful and provocative classroom discussions,
  •          great music and art, and
  •          kindness, decency and respect from students, faculty and support personnel.
Seemingly everyone I met there was in love with Notre Dame. And so, after all, am I.

The overriding theme of my executive leadership course was to appreciate the fact that to whom much is given, much is expected. It’s something I’ve thought about every day since. And it’s a spirit ever-present at my alma mater.

Something else I discovered? A crucifix in every single classroom at Notre Dame’s business school.

Imagine: An unapologetic religious symbol right there, every day, reminding future leaders about sacrifice and love… in the midst of adversity.

------------

Notre Dame is a place of high ideals. I don’t often live up to them, but I always aspire to them. Perhaps Coach Kelly, or even the university itself, would say the same.

Because of my own failings, however, I am convinced I will see the Fighting Irish win another national football championship in my lifetime.

The talent is there; so is the will to win. So I’ll be patient.

I’m convinced I have the time because I remember something the beloved Robert Vacca taught me in Classical Greek at Notre Dame. He attributed the concept to Herodotus, and it sadly applied to the professor’s own life, just as it did to my friend Pete Sgro.

Billy Joel put it this way:

Only the good die young.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Here's to Uncle Pat: All You Need Is Love

Thomas Patrick Cullinane – “Tom” to his school friends, “Pat” to most family members – would have been 56 years old today.

He was my brother-in-law, and he was always known around our house as “Uncle Pat.” After his sister Nancy and I bought a very old house, he spent so much time helping us fix up the place that our young daughters used to think he lived in our basement, sleeping on the tool bench.

He was, by far, the nicest guy I’ve ever known. I’m proud that he and his own wife, Joann, married in the backyard of our old house. When a bag-piper showed up that day, playing loud music with quiet dignity and adding something unexpectedly sweet to our ordinary suburban New Jersey lives, I thought, “How appropriate.” Because that was Uncle Pat in a nutshell.

On his every birthday since his death from cancer 17 years ago, my wife has served his favorite food since childhood for dinner – hot dogs and fudge marble cake.

She’s out buying the fixings now, so I thought I’d take a moment this dreary afternoon, when all is silent except for the beat of raindrops on the front porch roof that Uncle Pat built, just to say his name here.

A recent newspaper column about local pastor Dan O’Neill noted that at this year’s 9/11 event, he delivered the shortest speech: “We’re not really gone from this world until people stop saying our name,” Fr. O’Neill said, then recited the names of neighbors who had died at Ground Zero.

So Uncle Pat is not really gone. We’ll have hot dogs and fudge marble cake for dinner, and Nancy and Joann will organize another fund-raising golf outing in his name next year to benefit the American Cancer Society.

And, in the end, I think it’s no coincidence that Thomas Patrick Cullinane was born on the same day as John Lennon, who would have been 76 today. Kindred spirits, both have lived long in the hearts and memories of others.

How is that possible?

It’s easy. All you need is love.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Celebrating Three Decades of Love


Since much of Anne Buckley's career was in the pre-web days, much of this long-time Catholic editor's work can't be found online. So it is with the following newspaper column about a wedding in Nutley, N.J., in September 1986.

My wedding.

Nancy and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary next week, and this is an explanation of why we have an anniversary clock displayed in our dining room, between photos of us with my grandmother and Nancy's grandfather at St. Mary's Church.

Here's Anne's Editor's Report, as published in the Oct. 2, 1986, edition of "Catholic New York"...

Revolving Pendulum

The wedding gift ought to be special, since I am a friend of both the bride and the groom and they are both colleagues in the newspaper business, which is a little like fighting in the same platoon. Added to that, I was the one who introduced them to each other.

Nancy Cullinane, right out of college, joined the staff of Newark’s diocesan newspaper, The Advocate, where I was editor, and Bob Varettoni did the same thing at The Beacon, newspaper of the Paterson, N.J., Diocese, edited by Jerry Costello. We all moved on, Jerry and I to launch Catholic New York, five years ago last issue, Nancy to the Middletown Times Herald-Record, Bob to a Manhattan corporate publication.

When it came time to expand CNY’s staff of editors Bob turned up, ready for a change and with the required experience and awareness, from experience, of the professional standards that would be expected. He presided over the newsroom and production, and after nearly two years it became apparent that he was overloaded. As it happened, Nancy was now ready for a change back to the Catholic press, also aware of what she was getting into, professionally speaking. Some months later, when the romance surfaced, she accused Jerry and me of hatching a plot to replenish the supply of “little Catholic journalists.” We laughed, but I can’t say the thought did not cross my head that these two might hit it off.

Anyway, Bob had taken Nancy out to the campus of his alma mater, Notre Dame, and proposed at the grotto. He had also left CNY for the greener pastures of corporate communications, thinking of financial security for a family. Nancy had taken over Bob’s desk in the newsroom and remained calm throughout the preparations for the wedding because she said it was so much easier than getting the paper out each week.

And this day, I was in the gift section of a department store looking at a glass-domed “anniversary clock” with a revolving pendulum and thinking it might be an heirloom sort of memento of the whole association. Then I read the fine print on the tag: “Chimes the Ave Maria.”

Nancy and Bob are young urban professionals of the '80s, not the stereotypical designer-label, be-seen-in-the-right-places Yuppies. But the Ave Maria might not quite fit in with their ambiance. I envisioned them giggling every hour for the next 50 years about good old-fashioned pious Anne.

The wedding day came, and I still hadn’t found the right gift. Nancy seemed to be made of porcelain and lace, and Bob was in morning clothes, and the grubby business of editing copy and pasting up pages seemed never to have touched them. The decades of time that cause generation gaps didn’t seem to have touched them either.

Bob’s uncle, a pastor in Clifton, N.J., performed the liturgy. There was the lighting of the wedding candle, the roses presented to the mothers and Bob’s grandmother at the time of the greeting of peace, none other than “Panis Angelicus” at the Offertory, and near the end, the placing of a bouquet in front of the statue of Mary. As the couple knelt there, the soloist rendered the Ave Maria!

The next day I was back in the department story, purchasing the clock that I hoped would bring back memories of a special moment for them for the next 50 years. And thinking how symbolic it is that the pendulum does not swing back and forth, but revolves in a never-ending circle.

---

My own editor's note: Anne was a legendary proofreader. In working for her, I often joked that she could find at least one typo in ANYTHING -- including, on a dare, an inscription on a statue in New York City. So imagine my surprise when, in retyping this column, I discovered a typo of her own in the last paragraph. I think this was an Easter egg she always meant for me to find. And I did... on September 8, 2016.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Hate Is Hate Is Hate... We Can Do Better Than That

Our lives are so filled with hate speech that tonight Comedy Central will offer up 90 minutes of entertainment based on a woman being called a c*** 19 times, a racist c*** just for added impact, and then being told that she really ought to just kill herself.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (LA Times photo)
The woman is Ann Coulter, and while I disagree with her politics, I find it amazing that people are shocked… SHOCKED… at the possibility that Donald Trump might actually be elected President in November.

Don’t Trump opponents realize that name-calling and bullying aren’t attractive alternatives to name-calling and bullying?

I can imagine the argument: “Relax, it’s a roast, anything goes; we’re all professionals here.” And I’m sure that the entertainers and comedians who participated in Comedy Central’s roast all understand this. But do the majority of voters?

Image result for i'm a liberal but for the left
Screen cap from "Annie Hall"
Saying the worst things possible about someone and then backing off because you’re “only joking” is schoolyard bullying of the worst kind. I do think that the majority of voters understand that.

What’s the end game here anyway?

Perhaps – just perhaps – Coulter is smart enough to make herself enough of a martyr to actually swing sympathy in her direction. And maybe – just maybe -- all the snickering professionals on stage are all too clever by half, doing more harm than good for their own righteous cause.

EW magazine ad
I’m in no position to judge. Besides, as St. Teresa of Calcutta once taught us: If you judge people, you have no time to love them.

In June, Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda recited a poem on stage while accepting a Tony Award in the wake of the Orlando shootings.

“We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger,” he said, then evocatively concluded that “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love” and “cannot be killed or swept aside.”

Tonight, Comedy Central will only remind Americans that hate and fear do seem stronger, and that “hate is hate is hate is hate is hate is hate is hate is hate.”

I think we can do better than that. Do yourself a favor: don’t watch the program. Spend that time with your family instead. In doing so, you’ll be making the statement that hate speech masquerading as entertainment should indeed by swept aside.


My social-media friend Michael Kasdan reposted this on the Goodmen Project site, where he is an editor. It elicited a mix of supportive comments, along with a fair number of hate-filled comments and personal attacks.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Magic of Madam Marie's

Show a little faith, there's magic in the night... (found in New Jersey).

Last night a palm reader divined my daughter’s profession, very specifically and seemingly by #magic, upon meeting her. Then she foretold an encouraging future. When I told my wife that we had been to #madammarie, she said that’s the name of a character from a favorite childhood TV movie based on “Madeline's Christmas” by Ludwig Bemelmans. I said, “No, this is Bruce Springsteen’s Madam Marie” — when he sang to Sandy, “Did you hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie for telling fortunes better than they do?” Madam Marie died in 2008 at age 93, and her family continues to give readings from the same booth on the #AsburyPark #boardwalk. On his website, #Springsteen once wrote,“Back in the day, I'd often stop and talk to Madam Marie as she sat on her folding chair outside the Temple of Knowledge. I watched as she led the day trippers into the small back room where she would unlock a few of the mysteries of their future. She always told me mine looked pretty good — she was right. The world has lost enough #mystery as it is — we need our #fortunetellers." Thank you to the spirit of Madam Marie. What great kindness you showed to my daughter. I can never repay you for unlocking a few mysteries of her bright future and for restoring some magic to our lives.
A photo posted by Bob Varettoni (@bvarnj) on

Thursday, August 11, 2016

For Dorothy

Another Thursday, another throwback reposted from another social media site.

This time it's a poem inspired by listening to a little-known Don McClean song in my Pangborn Hall dorm room. ("Magdalene Lane," with the lyric, "MGM Studios can't make the nut, they're auctioning Dorothy's shoes...")

It was, by far, the easiest poetry assignment I ever completed, taking all of 10 minutes to write and type out... fully formed, without any edits... a welcome change from all the other assignments I struggled with. Perhaps it was the perfectly formed outlet for a bout of homesickness.

Whatever. I even submitted it to The Juggler, Notre Dame's literary journal, but it was never published.

Until now.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Where Have You Gone, Horace Clarke?

barrycode.com reports not a single HOF vote for Horace Clarke.
The only sin modern society does not forgive is mediocrity.

Yet – as we grow more connected on the internet, learning more about each other collectively and appreciating how much we don’t know individually – it seems there’s a wide range to the norm… accomplishment is often illusory and its context is never fully understood.

Put it this way: Hardly anyone’s more special than anyone else.

I was thinking about this today, while Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. were being inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. I was thinking of my boyhood New York Yankee heroes after the end of the Mickey Mantle era, when one of my favorite players was Horace Clarke.

Years ago I might have written a nostalgic piece titled, “Where Have You Gone, Horace Clarke?” But, these days, it’s pretty easy to find out that he’s alive and well, having lived a full life, and that he has been popularly vilified as the very definition of baseball mediocrity – even including comments in a recent book (see my review below) by his former teammate Fritz Peterson.

Peterson was a career .500 pitcher known for throwing a variety of legal and illegal pitches. He shouldn’t be one to throw stones at teammates, however, since I remember him as a literal control-freak, giving up more than his share of 0-2 home runs. I also remember Horace one year hitting .285 and coming to bat one night with the bases loaded, two out and the Yankees losing by a run in the ninth.

Horace worked the count to 3-1 that night. The opposing pitcher slipped delivering the next pitch, which arrived at the plate as a mini-Steve-Hamilton-Folly-Floater – perhaps a half-foot higher than the top of the strike zone and perhaps 60 mph.

Rather than take ball four and tie the game, Horace sent a meek pop fly to centerfield to seal another loss.

Afterward, he explained to reporters that the pitch looked “as big as a balloon” and that he “couldn’t resist it.”

I think we all know why he swung at that pitch, though. Horace hit only 27 home runs during his career, and his first two were grand slams. That night, he was taking a mighty swing against mediocrity – not knowing that he was destined to never hit a third grand slam in his career.

Well done, Ken Griffey Jr.
So congratulations, Mike and Ken. As a baseball fan, I say, “Well done.”

As one of the 7.4 billion human beings alive today who, like Horace Clarke, have never received a single Hall of Fame vote, I’ll simply – as if standing beside a conquering general parading into ancient Rome – whisper this reminder:

“All glory is fleeting."

---------

When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Years.When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Years. by Fritz Peterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is one of the oddest books I've ever read, so I give it an extra star for quirkiness.

Odd editing... riddled with typos, exclamation points, poor grammar, bad exposition (mentioning something as if it had already been explained, then explaining it later), and repeated phrases, anecdotes and even whole sections.

Odd theology... the moral I gleaned is that you can apparently be as big a jerk as you want in life because God forgives everything.

Odd racist overtones... considering that the three teammates called out for lack of hustle were the three black position players during most of Peterson's time with the Yankees; at the same time, almost all the white players are uniformly described as "good guys" with "great wives."

Odd life advice... don't buy life insurance or root for the Mets, but be sure invest in real estate (unless it falls into the hands of your first wife during the divorce settlement, then you can obsess about real estate values for 40 years).

Oh, parenthetically, about that divorce: Odd that this book glossed over the one thing Peterson is most known for... that he swapped wives and children and family dogs with a teammate in 1973. Oh, but that will be the subject of another book, it's explained.

Mr. Peterson, you were a splendid pitcher for the Yankees many years ago. I rooted for you as a boy. Thank you for bringing back those memories. I admire your professional career and if you ever do draft another book, please contact me before self-publishing again.

Odd, but I think I may be able to help you. I'd edit it for free.


View all my Goodreads reviews

Monday, July 11, 2016

42 Ways of Looking at the Garden State

I make no excuses for being proud of my home state. It's a favorite subject of my Instagram account, and even a Tumblr blog.

I feel proud that not only did I grow up here, but I also created a new idea of "home" in New Jersey for my own children. After all -- as the character Andrew Largeman touchingly articulated in the 2004 movie "Garden State" -- "maybe that's all family really is: a group of people that miss the same imaginary place."

So far, in 2016, I've found New Jersey to be particularly real... and various and beautiful and new. Following are 42 of my favorite images (26 slides) in a 3-minute show.

 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us...

End of Watch (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #3)End of Watch by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The completion of this trilogy has cemented my admiration for Stephen King as a storyteller. That's a truly wonderful thing -- so, thank you, Mr. King for the many hours of entertainment. My only hesitation in reviewing all this is about what it all means. The story here, for example, exploits paranormally assisted teen suicide as the vehicle for yet another story about yet another serial killer. In lesser hands, this might be a bad episode of "Criminal Minds." But, in greater hands -- like Stephen King's -- well, let me put it this way: I once read him describe writing as "magic" and say its purpose was to enrich the lives of readers. As good as it is to be entertained, I wonder if it's not too much to expect greater things from those who have the ability to create great magic.


View all my book reviews

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why Isn't Real Life Good Enough?

From my Instagram feed today.
I was trying to show my wife how the camera works on my phone (it’s a mixed marriage… she’s #iPhone; I’m #Android). “You only have to tap the screen,” I explained. But that didn’t seem to work for her. “I must have dead fingers,” she teased, thus terrifying me for the rest of the evening. “Like so,” I replied, taking this photo of the flowers on our dining room table. “Oh, no, you’re probably going to Instagram that,” she sighed.

That was almost a dare, and I almost didn’t accept. It’s a casual photo, and I thought about how I’d need to adjust the focus and the lighting, and about all the other ways I could manipulate the image to leave my mark.

But then I took another look, and decided to post this after all because these #flowers are otherwise impermanent. They need #nofilter, and there’s magic in their casual beauty.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Lessons From Rare Photos of Dad

In the '60s
Dad was usually behind the camera in family photos, so I have few photos of him by himself. That's...

Lesson one: Above all, be of service to others.

It led to a better life for Dad, who – when photographed – was happily upstaged by his dark-haired, fashionable wife, blond and always-smiling daughter, and moody and chubby son.

Because he devoted his life to his family, I can tell you that even though this weekend will be the 10th Father’s Day since he died, he has been remembered every day since by his wife and children and grandchildren. His life will have impact on his grandchildren’s future children.


Lesson two: Work hard.

Overlooking Bryant Park
Here’s a photo of Dad behind his desk at New York Telephone at 1095 Ave. of the Americas near Bryant Park, at a time in New York’s history when Bryant Park wasn’t very clean or safe.

You may think, by his Don Draper good looks and jacket, that Dad was an advertising executive. He was creative enough to be one. But no, he was head of the customer service department… the executive appeals branch… in charge of handling all the especially tough complaints.

Dad was, for all his great qualities, possibly the most impatient man in the world. So you’d think this would be a horrible job for him. The last thing any sane person, his son included, would ever want to do would be complain to my father.

But instead of channeling his impatience at customers, he channeled it at silly processes and ineffective management… and he had a long and successful career.

I work for a successor company to Dad’s, and we share the same first name. For many years after he retired I’d get calls where as soon as I’d identify myself, I’d hear a pause on the other line. Then the person would exclaim, “You’re not Bob Varettoni”-- a constant reminder of my existential failings.


Lesson three: Love is made manifest by self-discipline and loyalty.

Captain Varettoni
No one was ever a more loyal friend than my father. When he died, I heard this from many of his friends dating back to high school and, especially, from his service in the Navy.

After active duty, Dad served in the reserves, eventually attaining the rank of Captain in the Intelligence division. Dad valued the discipline he found in the Navy – which probably accounts for why he was so good at his day job at the phone company.

In his whole life, just like Superman, there was only one thing he was defenseless against.

Dad’s kryptonite was a pack of Kent cigarettes. Until his 60s, he could never give up his three-pack-a-day smoking habit. I saw him try to quit, and fail, several times while I was growing up. Never did he look so defeated than when he’d relapse and start smoking again.

Yet after a second heart attack, after his doctor warned him that he would never live to see my youngest daughter grow up unless he stopped smoking, Dad quit that very day and never smoked again. I can’t begin to imagine how hard that must have been.

Today, my youngest daughter has years of great memories of my Dad. The two of them were thick as thieves, and no matter where my daughter has lived there are always cherished photos on her nightstand of my Dad and her together.

His loyalty to me was incredible.

One day early in my career, I thought I had made a mistake that would get me fired. I knew how proud he was that I worked at the same company, so I let him know right away. He listened and said, “Son, that wasn’t your fault.” Believe me, he would have let me know if it was. “They’d be fools to fire you,” he added. “Your bosses hung you out to dry.” And I believe that, behind the scenes, my bosses were made aware of this too.

As a teen, after I wrecked the family car (my dad loved cars as much as I love electronic gadgets), my first call was to Dad at his office. I’ll never forget that his only concern was whether I had been injured in any way. When I initially decided to attend a college other than Notre Dame (Dad’s lifelong dream for me), his reply was simply, “Whatever you think is best for you.” And then I decided to go to Notre Dame anyway. It was one of the best decisions of my life.


Dad didn’t know everything, though...

On Father’s Day in 2000, he spent the afternoon at my house. After I had come in from playing in the backyard with my young daughters, he said, “I like to watch you with your kids. You’re always laughing. You’re a better father than me. We never laughed together like that.”

True, I have had a different relationship with my children than Dad had with me. I’ve found fatherhood to be immensely joyous, though sometimes heart-breaking. But I haven’t been a better father than Dad. In the grand scheme, I merely tried to follow in his footsteps. It was never important to me to be a friend to my children; it has always more important to me to try to be as selfless and devoted to my family as Dad was.

Father and son
Just moments after Dad and I spoke on the back porch, my wife took this blurry, unguarded photo of us.

It was just a split second, more than 15 years ago, but I treasure this photo most of all. It proves, unquestionably, that Dad wasn’t always right:

We did too laugh together, and those moments were all the more precious because they were indeed so rare.

---

Here's something I previously posted about my Dad.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Auto-Tweeters: Delete Your Account

To everyone who was auto-tweeting on Sunday morning, June 12, 2016:

Delete your account.

I received hundreds of tweets that morning from brand-friendly bloggers, social media ninjas, communications experts, self-published authors, and brands trying to sell things or engage with me.

There’s nothing wrong with this, if we lived in a vacuum.

But these tweets seemed so tone deaf as the news was breaking that a gunman in Orlando had killed 50 people just hours earlier, in the worst mass shooting slaughter in American history.

Worse, some tweets seemed appallingly insensitive. Not intentionally so, but appallingly insensitive just the same.

Amazon sent a tweet advertising a “Cereal Killer” cereal bowl. An account tweeting funny lines from “The Simpsons” used a quote from Homer telling Bart, “People die all the time, just like that…”

Why weren’t these accounts silenced?

Instead of silence, the fallback for many on social media is to send a message of “thoughts and prayers” -- which at least expresses a human reaction to tragic events.

Consider the even better reaction of @TeenVogue, which tweeted a series of actions to take in response to Sunday’s violence – donating blood, researching gun legislation and voting records, volunteering at LGBTQ centers, or simply telling the people closest to you that you love them.

If the day has come that Teen Vogue is a leading media outlet in interpreting our news… just as Gawker has been a leading outlet in breaking many important stories… then marketing organizations and practitioners should realize by now that auto-tweeting isn’t enhancing your brand or engendering engagement… or contributing in any way.

Let’s put some thought and effort into this. If we can send a LinkedIn invitation that doesn’t read, “I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn,” we can also be more authentic in our other social media feeds.

As a start, let's take two simple steps to make the Twitterverse a better place:
  • Unfollow the three most egregious auto-tweeters in your feed.
  • Follow three people who express compassion, who attempt to provide comfort or insight, or who simply stay silent when the occasion calls for it.

Originally posted on my LinkedIn account.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Chasing the Gingerbread Man (Why I Run)

New Jersey, for all its charms, is the most densely populated state in America.

So a favorite running route takes me far away from the crowds… to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which is just up a lonely country road near the campus where I work in Morris County.

The owl in the tree
Early yesterday, I found myself utterly alone there, staring up at a young, downy-feathered barn owl in the branches of a tree.

Investigating further, I saw a nest on a higher branch, so I guessed that the owl fell from there and didn’t yet know how to fly.

“I can’t fly either,” I explained lamely, making a mental note to report the sighting at the park’s education center in case something could or should be done to help.

Resuming my run, I thought of how much the scenery reminded me of the summers I spent in Morris County as a boy, at my grandparents’ house in what was then a similarly remote area.

My grandfather and me
The outside air still smells the same here, and I expect to turn and find my grandfather nearby. We spent many days walking together along back country roads just like this. He would talk to me about gardening or raising chickens, teach me the names of trees and flowers, or tell me corny jokes or improbable stories that I later learned were folk and fairy tales.

Still, he’d think it silly that a grown man would go running for exercise, when there was always real work to be done outdoors.

“Run, run, run as fast as you can!” I can imagine him taunting me now.

 ---------

My grandfather died long ago, and he would have no idea what my life is like today when I return to the office. All the traffic on Route 287 just to get here. All the technology. All the people.

When I can’t get outside to exercise, I use the company gym, which is equipped with internet-connected exercise bikes with full-color monitors that offer a virtual-reality display of my ride… as if I were on a real bike on a pleasant Sunday ride among rolling hills. The resistance of the pedals matches the terrain, and even the leaves on the virtual trees are programmed to be green in summer months, colorful in fall and bare in winter.

Working out on an exercise bike, I connect my Bluetooth headphones and listen to a book or music, and get lost in the computerized scenery and pretend I am alone.

Unfortunately, the bike’s computer always offers up images of other virtual riders along the way. I don’t even have to swerve around them, though. I can ride right through them to pass. The computer also offers up many other riding scenarios that are far from realistic: a snow-covered trail where the Abominable Snowman makes an appearance; a game that lets me chase dragons; and one scenario where I am miniaturized into the elaborate world of a model railroad in the basement of a giant human and his backyard ruled by a giant cat.

It’s all in fun, and I’m sure my grandfather would have appreciated the whimsy.

But there’s one feature hard-wired into these virtual reality exercise bikes that literally haunts me: The program always presents the image of a ghost rider… an exact replication of a previous ride I’ve made on the same course… representing my “personal best.”

In the virtual world, I can try just a little bit harder and ride right through my own ghost, putting my past behind me.

It occurs to me that in real life, when I run, my brain is hard-wired to always chase a ghost of my former self too.

But in real life, no matter how hard I try, with each passing day, my grandfather – and my past -- recedes even further into the distance on the road ahead of me.

Run, run, run as fast as I can, I can’t catch him. He’s the Gingerbread Man.


This was originally posted on The Good Men Project site.