Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Haunting in New Milford

It’s October; time to get spooky. Do you believe in ghosts?

I do, or want to. There must be more to life than what we can see, and it's comforting to believe in an afterlife.

But only once in my life did I really think I saw a ghost.

Years ago, the 21 Red and Tan commuter bus from New York dropped me off right on River Road by the side of my old, historic house in New Milford, NJ. From the bus stop, I could see my wife in our back bay window. She was reaching up, hanging a flower pot.

Moments later, I was home and in the living room. No one had greeted me at the front door, and I found nothing hanging in the window. All I found was a note in the kitchen from my wife, saying she had taken our two young daughters on a play date and would be late arriving home.

I was more puzzled than frightened. I’ve lived there many years since without any similar incidents, and the back bay window was long ago replaced during a renovation. Still, my daughters swear they sometimes heard “ghost cats” from their bedrooms when they were young. That might be explained by mice or squirrels. I can’t explain what I think I saw with my own eyes.

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So it was with some curiosity that I saw New Milford DPW workers recently install a banner reading “Nightmare on River Road” over the very spot where I once thought I saw a ghost. At first I thought, “I know our fence needs some repairs, but ‘nightmare’ is a little harsh!”

On further review, I realized it was an advertisement for one of New Jersey’s “premiere indoor haunted house attractions,” right in the center of my home town. There’s a a website with further information, a Facebook page (of course) and this news story in the Bergen Record, which gives plenty of details about the 23-room site, open weekends during October.

During the day, I went to check it out for myself before it opened, and a friendly representative of New Milford Boy Scout Troops 78 and 291 invited me in to look around – as long as I didn’t post any photos. The attraction was still in set-up mode – but I was impressed, both by the quality of the project and by the enormous volunteer effort that has made this remarkable Boy Scout fundraiser come to life. Or death.

Despite the warning, I did take a single photo: the one posted at the top of this page... a behind-the-scenes, real-life messy sink. It wasn’t part of the attraction, I rationalized – although it looks like it belongs in a serial killer’s lair.

I was admiring this shot on my cell as soon as I turned to head home… and promptly tripped. I instinctively used my iPhone to break my fall to the concrete. I’m OK, but the screen was shattered.

Somehow, I managed to extract the photo of the sink as a grim reminder – and warning to you -- to always listen to whatever a Boy Scout leader tells you to do, even in matters of the paranormal.

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Aside from the Nightmare on River Road, I know of few other haunted places in New Milford.

The borough is, however, bookended by two sites where people have claimed to see ghosts. One is the old Steuben House at historic New Bridge Landing just over the border on the south side.

I ask you, though, does this room look haunted?



OK, so it does.

Just over the border on the north side of town, there’s also this…



… It’s the abandoned Oradell Water Treatment Plan on the Van Buskirk Island property owned by United Water (formerly the Hackensack Water Company). You can’t tell me that place isn’t haunted.

Finally, just for an October's eve adventure, I drove to another allegedly haunted site a few miles away that for years has attracted attention from the girls (my daughters included) at Holy Angels High School: The Devil’s Tower in Alpine.

According to local legend, if you drive or walk backward around the tower at least three times, you see the ghost of a woman who leapt to her death there. You might also find yourself face-to-face with the devil.

I took these 13 photos of The Devil’s Tower, but I didn’t dare drive or walk backward while there. When it comes to the supernatural, I’m a skeptical believer… not a fool.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Joe Girardi Illustrated 5 Ways Business Leaders Fail -- And 1 Way to Win

Back page of the NY Post the morning after
I grew up a Yankees fan, although these past few years I've really only followed the Mets. My wife is a lifelong Mets fan, and I have come to appreciate and believe Roger Angell's quote from "The Summer Game" that "there is more Met than Yankee" in every one of us.

Still, I like the Yankees -- and they are responsible for some of my life's most vivid memories... watching countless games on TV at home with Dad in Totowa, NJ, and a memorable Aaron Boone home run live in the Bronx with my friend John Bonomo. What's not to like about Aaron Judge or Didi Gregorius or even Joe Girardi?

Well, I found plenty not to like about Joe's managing of Friday night's Game 2 of the ALDS -- and wrote the following and posted it on LinkedIn without even getting out of bed Saturday morning. Since then, on Day 2, Joe has admitted to making errors in judgment during the game, so I'll add a 6th lesson here: Learning from mistakes is a winning strategy. Here's hoping the Yankees recover and win today and tomorrow and again next Wednesday. In the meantime, here's what I posted yesterday:

If and when New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi leaves his career in baseball, he might consider a teaching job at the Harvard Business School. He’d have valuable first-hand lessons to teach on how business leaders can fail:
  1. Rely too much on process. Girardi’s post-game “they only us 30 seconds to decide” excuse for not seeking a replay challenge of the ball that allegedly hit Lonnie Chisenhall (and ultimately changed the outcome of last night’s Game 2 of the AL Divisional Playoff between the Yankees and Cleveland Indians) is a classically lame corporate copout. It’s akin to saying “we’ve always done it this way.”
  2. Rely on poor metrics. Last night, baseball viewers were informed by cable TV announcers that the Yankees led the league in successful replay challenges (75%). And likely there are Yankees replay staff, responsible for recommending whether the manager should ask for a challenge, who stake their job security and expect a raise this year for producing such an impressive number. The thing is, it’s the wrong number. In fact, if you successfully challenge only 5% of replays – and one of those 5% happens to turn the tide of a playoff game – that’s the only right metric to be concerned about.
  3. Don’t seize the moment. OK, Joe, so you do have only a limited amount of time and your replay staff has let you down. What do you do? Nothing, is not the correct answer. (And, here, history repeats itself, because 10 years ago in the playoffs Yankees manager Joe Torre similarly did nothing as his team was literally attacked by a plague of locusts on the same field). Instead, seize the moment. Channel former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver. I believe Earl would have shot out of the dugout, gotten in the face of the erring umpire, thrown a few things around the infield – and given his 75%-right staff more than 30 seconds to see that Yankees pitcher Chad Green had actually produced an inning-ending strikeout instead of a hit batsman to load the bases.
  4. Lack a creative spark. Oh, but Joe later explained, he didn’t want to interrupt Green’s rhythm in that situation by calling for an extended replay review. That proved very wrong. The non-interrupted Green proceeded to surrender a grand slam to Francisco Lindor, the next batter. Perhaps, given that Joe said he knew from his prior experience as a major league catcher that “interrupted rhythm” was a real concern, he could have, with a little creativity, both delayed the game to ensure a proper replay review AND had another pitcher warmed up to replace Green before he faced Lindor. So few people -- and I'll include myself here -- are able to think three moves ahead in the heat of a pressure-packed moment. The people who do are the people who lead business revolutions.
  5. Don’t listen to employees. This is the worst offense. Joe’s own on-field captain, catcher Gary Sanchez, clearly motioned to the dugout that the ball had been foul-tipped and caught, rather than hit the batter. Joe, who has recently publicly criticized Sanchez’ defensive skills (another management error), evidently didn’t believe him. What do you think Sanchez’ psyche is like now? Or Green’s? Or Todd Frazier, who Joe later pulled from the game at second base for pinch runner Roland Torreyes... who was promptly picked off, later meekly struck out, and then, having replaced Frazier in the field, allowed Cleveland’s winning ground ball to pass between him and third base on the final play of the game.
All that said, losing in a team sport – and losing in business situations – is always a team effort.

The Daily News' take
Sanchez looked at a third strike with a runner in scoring position, team superstar Aaron Judge didn’t produce a single RBI when it was needed most, and Green DID give up a grand slam. Even external forces produced “headwinds” (corporate jargon alert) that worked against a Yankee victory. Remember, it was home-plate umpire Dan Iassogna who first made the incorrect call on the strikeout – much to the surprise of the batter and catcher. And a New York Post photographer interfered with a play that gave Cleveland an extra base in a crucial spot. And Karma.

Winning is a team effort too. Let’s not forget that Lindor actually hit a grand slam, that catcher Yan Gomes’ cannon arm produced the Torreyes pickoff, that Jay Bruce hit a home run when his team needed it most, and that Gomes also ultimately (unlike so many hitters before him) hit a game-winning RBI in extra innings.

If and when Girardi takes that professorship at Harvard Business School, sign me up. I'm sure Yankees fans only hope it’s a course that's offered in the coming spring semester.

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Read all 28 articles I've posted on LinkedIn, all touching on PR issues. Also, special thanks to my friend Michael Kasdan. He's an editor at The Good Men Project, a website founded in 2009 as a collection of men’s stories about the defining moments in their lives. GMP reposted this yesterday, just as it has so graciously posted some of my other rants.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Kurt & Me: A ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ Review Unstuck in Time

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s October 2017, and a chubby, graying PR person driving a white Ford Fusion hybrid has just pulled to the shoulder past the Harter Road exit on Route 287 South in New Jersey.
 
He’s shouting, but there’s no one else in the car.

His radio, which earlier that morning had informed him of yet another mass shooting in America, was now streaming an Audible book. In an otherwise listless narration of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the actor James Franco had just read this passage (read further for the context):
“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again."
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Listen: Bob Varettoni has come unstuck in time.

It’s October 1977, and he is sitting in an undergraduate American literature class at a large Catholic university in northern Indiana. He has not completely read the latest assignment, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” because he did not have the time or (at that time in his life) the nerve to return his copy of the book to the Hammes bookstore (the old small one off the South Quad, not the megastore that graces the campus in 2017).

He had bought the book weeks earlier, but upon starting to read it he was distressed to notice that the binding was flawed. Several of the folios were missing. So whole sections of the novel weren’t included, including the description of Billy Pilgrim viewing a war movie in reverse.

Nevertheless, by that time Bob had already read “Cat’s Cradle” and “Breakfast of Champions” so he concluded he had already read enough of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, and gotten the gist of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” to submit a critique – which received an A – stating the author was too clever by half in writing about such a serious topic as the firebombing of Dresden.

Bob smugly recalled this A years later, while watching a Jon Lovitz sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” As Master Thespian, Lovitz would perform a ridiculously self-centered conceit, an over-the-top bit of stage business – which would all be explained and justified by the catchphrase, “Acting!”

That’s the way Bob, for decades, had thought of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” smugly thinking that its Famous Author had (much like this review) called more attention to his craft than to his message:

“And so it goes... WRITING!” “Brilliant!” “Thank you!”

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Vonnegut and Krementz, a 1978 photo by Saul Leiter.
It’s now October 1997, and Bob is attending a breakfast event at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan. He works for a telephone company called Bell Atlantic, which has sponsored a Columbia Journalism School series about First Amendment issues.

An elegant, dark-haired woman approaches Bob to say hello. She’s the photographer Jill Krementz. Bob had recently helped fix problems with her phone service.

Jill greets Bob warmly and turns to introduce her husband – who, a surprise to Bob, is the Famous Author, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Jill invites Bob to sit at their table and whispers something to Kurt. He smiles and asks Bob about his job. “It’s only PR,” Bob demurs. Kurt replies, “Nothing wrong with that…” adding that he used to do PR for GE in Schenectady many years earlier. Soon others are vying for his attention, and panel presentations begin.

The speakers spoke fluent Academia, and sometimes their words struck Bob as unintentionally funny. Bob tried not to react, but caught Kurt’s eye from across the table, and the two had a great time over the next hour conspiratorially exchanging glances. They were, it seemed to Bob, the only people in the room who were in on the joke.

Kurt had a twinkle in his eye, reminding Bob of the times he spent as a boy with his witty, unconventional, larger-than-life grandfather, whose photo he keeps at his desk in his virtual office in the year 2017.

In the photo, Bob’s grandfather is nearly passed out drunk at a table, while Bob obliviously plays at his feet. You really can’t see Bob in the photo… just one chubby arm and a sliver of a child’s body in overalls… but somehow, this image never fails to make him happy.

Back in October 1997, Bob gathered his courage at the end of the breakfast, shook the Famous Author’s hand, and said, “I’ll never forget this morning.” Kurt wordlessly bowed, like Master Thespian.
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And now it’s October 2017 again, and Bob Varettoni is driving to work.

He has wearily turned off radio news accounts about someone who had somehow purchased 33 guns in the past year, converted many of them to automatic weapons and stashed them in a Las Vegas hotel suite, from where he then shot 58 people to death the previous Sunday evening.

Instead of listening to more of this, Bob attempts to finally listen to the entirety of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” 40 years after he was originally assigned to read it in class.

Approaching the exit to Harter Road on Route 287 South, he hears James Franco intone, “It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this…”

The absurd, and clever, genius of the images that followed… the scene’s message of peace and nonviolence, and its literal deconstruction of all the senseless weapons… is the stuff of great literature. Bob got goosebumps as he continued to listen. These words were so utterly unexpected in the context of his life it was as if someone had pried open the top of his head to fill it with something altogether new.

By the time the narrator reached the part about dismantling the cylinders and separating the dangerous contents into minerals and how – touchingly – it was mainly women who did this work, Bob had to pull over to the side of the road to collect his thoughts.

When James Franco continued to read about how the minerals were shipped to specialists in remote areas… about how it was their job to return the minerals to the earth, hiding them cleverly, “so they would never hurt anybody ever again… “ Bob pounded his hand against the steering wheel of his parked car and shouted, “What the hell! I mean, seriously!” Perhaps he even used an expletive other than “hell.” He repeated, in astonishment, “What the hell was THAT?”

That was Kurt, the Famous Author, finally saying goodbye.

And so it goes.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Corporations Can't Buy Love... But Can They Earn It?

Verizon's Credo, on the wall of corporate hq
Driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike on the Sunday Hurricane Irma made landfall, I saw a convoy of Con Edison trucks heading south, toward Florida.

The crews were speeding in the opposite direction of safety, already on their way to help Florida Power & Light restore electricity.

Working in PR for Verizon, I knew colleagues who were, just then, staffing Florida command centers in hardened facilities built to withstand Category 5 winds. They were assessing damage and coordinating with emergency teams to provide support as soon as it was safe and possible… just as other colleagues had done days earlier when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.

Also at the same time, the roster of corporations donating funds and services in response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma was reaching impressive proportions. CNN reported that donations alone totaled nearly $160 million in the immediate aftermath of Harvey. Verizon donated $10 million, with $2.5 million as part of the Hand in Hand telethon, which included more than 4,000 employees answering phones during the benefit.

Press releases and social media posts soon announced one corporate donation after another … all the way up to Walmart upping its initial $20 million commitment to $30 million.

Cars honked and flashed their headlights in appreciation at the Con Ed trucks. In my own car on Sirius XM’s new Beatles channel, Paul McCartney sang, “Money can’t buy me love.”

I wondered, was “buying love” what corporate America was trying to do? Was this outpouring of support for Floridians and Texans really just marketing in sheep’s clothing?

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Consider the recent wave of CEO activism on political issues. TheStreet’s Tucker Higgins wrote that it’s been a banner year for public position-taking among U.S. corporations. For example, the President’s immigration policy sparked dozens of CEOs to issue public statements.

This is especially interesting in the context of a recent Weber Shandwick finding: more than half of surveyed millennials said they were more likely to buy products from a company led by a CEO who shares their values on social issues. An ancillary benefit is that CEOs who express socially-responsible policy views can help recruit and attract employment talent – or at least social media advocacy -- from a millennial base.

This is, and should be, important to business leaders. After all, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust is in crisis around the world. The general population’s trust in all four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly.

Without an authentic connection to customers on a human level, business leaders today risk a consumer sentiment exemplified by corrupt Sen. Geary in “The Godfather Part II.” “I’ll do business with you,” he tells Michael Corleone, “but the fact is I despise your masquerade.”

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A larger movement among businesses began a dozen years ago when another hurricane made landfall. As Causecast CEO Ryan Scott observed, “Hurricane Katrina not only devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It also shattered the confidence Americans had in their government to respond to domestic emergencies.” This, he argues, changed the nature of corporate social responsibility forever.

Lowe's employees in Texas
Corporations are made up of people, and when other people are in dire need – and there’s instant access to their plight via social media – it’s just human decency to do the right thing. If there’s an undercurrent of self-interest, does it even matter?

Think about it: in recent days, a grassroots effort among the business community has marshaled and mobilized an immediate, effective collection of essential services and funding to support the well-being of countless thousands of individuals. Fueled by new media, this effort has been unprecedented in scope – and its beneficiaries are not just customers, not just shareholders, but society as a whole.

I see three takeaways in this for PR professionals:

  • It’s time to take a renewed pride in our profession.
I recall conversations over the years where reporters would call the PR profession “the dark side.” These conversations have been more infrequent lately – perhaps correlating with the Edelman Trust Index finding that the media is even less trusted than the business community. It used to be that traditional media fueled social media; now, it’s the opposite. This means PR advocacy is more important than ever.

The truth is, advocacy for agents of positive change is a wonderful thing. If gaining recognition for a company that’s doing good works -- with an authentic concern for customers and employees -- is considered the dark side, then call me Darth Vader.

If you’re not proud of the PR work you’re doing, you’re advocating for the wrong company or client. If that’s the case, get out. Now.

  • It’s time to re-double our commitment to ethics.
September is recognized as Ethics Month by the PRSA, and there’s no better time to review its ethics code. The guidance relates to the values of advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness.... because, ultimately, our job is to help our company/client do the right thing. The best PR is built on the best business practices.

I still recall Bob DeFillippo’s words before he retired as Prudential’s chief communications officer. He was asked what he would have done differently during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to reduce the damage to BP’s reputation. He replied, “I would have capped the well faster.”

He also said, “I never had to compromise my integrity because of concerns over profit or to avoid admitting that we did something wrong.”

I can say the same. I’ve seen more mutual respect, civility and decency evident in corporate America than in general society… or even in a church parking lot. At my company, there’s an oft-cited one-page Credo that also reminds us, when hurricanes strike, “We run to a crisis, not away.”

  • It’s time to be more respectful of our audiences.
Because of social media, there’s an accelerating trend in corporate PR where internal and external communications are melding. There’s good in this, but there’s also a danger… especially in times of crisis.

Press releases, tweets and Facebook posts that self-proclaim employees as heroes are counter-productive to the greater good in this new age of corporate social responsibility. Yes, there’s internal value in building employee culture by recognizing good work during crises. But, externally, a hero is a first-responder who puts his or her own life on the line in the service of others.

PR professionals need to resist self-serving external communications that make it appear, at best, a company is being inauthentic and, at worst, a company is taking advantage of a tragedy to try to gain positive attention.

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In “Uprising,” Scott Goodson, chairman of StrawberryFrog, writes about the power of social movements in the business world: “As businesses become involved with the right kinds of movements – and if they do so in an authentic manner that supports and facilitates rather than tries to exploit – I believe this can help companies themselves to attain a higher sense of purpose.”

As McCartney’s bandmate once asked, “You say you want a revolution?”

Well, you know, when it comes to corporate America's response to helping other people in a crisis, there’s already one underway. It’s a revolution, PR people should know, where your work has direct and vital impact.

This post originally appeared 9/25/17 on Nasdaq's MarketInsite.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Luna Parc, Photographer's Paradise

Luna Parc, the private home and studio of Paterson-born artist Ricky Boscarino, is an immersive work of living art in rural Sussex County, NJ.

It's not open to the public often, but Asbury Park's Suzanne Spitaletta, founder of the mighty social-media-based photography community Black Glass Gallery, arranged a tour for the group, led by Ricky's neighbor Scott on a hot and humid September Saturday.

I tried to control myself, yet took over 200 photos. Here's a shared Google folder with 70 of my photos.

Everywhere I looked there was something to see and appreciate. If only real life was like that, right?

Well, maybe it is. And maybe that's the point.


Anyway, here's a portrait of Ricky...

And here's a display of Ricky's Mom's wedding dress...

And here, on the kitchen counter, is a photo of what this formerly modest cabin looked like nearly 30 years ago when it was first purchased...

According to Scott, Ricky intends to keep adding to the property until the day he dies, and leave it to the world as his legacy.

I look forward to the photos that will be posted on Black Glass Gallery's website and Instagram feed. Meanwhile, Luna Parc's website contains much more information, so you can find a way to plan a visit for yourself.

Prepare to be overwhelmed, and enchanted.



Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dimensionalize That Paradigm!

Two books converge in the woods, and I choose the one more complicated


A long-favorite short story by James Thurber, “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” tells of an American woman at a hotel in the English countryside, circa 1955. She wants to read a good mystery story before going to sleep, but the only thing close at hand by her bedside was Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

So she reads it as a murder mystery, and comically reads too much into everything.

I’ve just done the same thing with two shortish novels – “Private” by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro and “The Reason You’re Alive” by Matthew Quick – that happened to be taking up space in my Kindle library. I figured, “Well, what the hell…”

The only thing the two books have in common is that the protagonists of both are war heroes, with unlimited access to funding.

I fear I’ve read far too much into both books, however. I’m now all worked up about the art of storytelling.

Private (Private, #1)Private by James Patterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Private,” the first book in the Jack Morgan series, is a relentless plot machine. Resistance is futile. Every chapter is bite-sized and fast-moving. Multiple plots are juggled with ease. Celebrities make cameos. The men are more manly; the women all sleep with Jack. One plot involves the NFL… accompanied by the mafia, of course. Another involves obligatory cyber-genius serial killers preying on young females. There’s plenty of sex, violence and advanced forensics. In short, it’s a typical late 2000s episode of “CSI” or “Criminal Minds,” with the loose ends neatly tied up before a closing ad for Kraft Foods.

The thing is, you can’t put the book down – and you can’t argue with its success. It’s like eating peanuts from the generous bowl the bartender always places in front of Jack because he’s such a big tipper. You always think, “Just another chapter or two before I put this down…”

“Private” is published under the James Patterson Brand… ghost-written by Paetro and, judging from the acknowledgements, researched by a small army of assistants. It takes a village to be a best-selling author these days.

The Reason You're AliveThe Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After this naked, tour-de-force of storytelling, reading “The Reason You’re Alive” reminded me of a corporate parody video I once saw where a marketing manager urged his staff to “dimensionalize that paradigm.”

I now think I finally know the meaning of that phrase. You see, I see what you did there, Mr. Quick. You dimensionalized the paradigm of storytelling.

“The Reason You’re Alive” isn't all about the plot. It's told by an unreliable narrator in a PTSD mental fog – a non-politically-correct war hero. There are graphic descriptions of war crimes, combined with lots of casual and mean-spirited obscenity. There’s also a deus-ex-machina Vietnam buddy who provides the funding that makes the ending possible.

Still, in the end, I didn’t really enjoy the book that much, to be honest. It was all a little too forced, a little too quirky. The war crimes are over-the-top but, hey, I’ve read that Miramax has purchased the movie rights, so maybe it’s just me. I probably never watched enough episodes of “CSI” and “Criminal Minds” to become as desensitized as a studio executive.

Still, if forced to choose between the two books, I’d choose “The Reason You’re Alive” in a heartbeat. It’s not like everything else. And “Private” is precisely like everything else.

The moral here is that I’m going to re-think the “reading whatever is close at hand” trap I’ve fallen into lately.

I’m now looking for something that dimensionalizes the storytelling paradigm, but that that also isn’t a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I hear “Macbeth” might be a pretty good read.


View all my Goodreads reviews

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Michelangelo in Paramus

From my Instagram feed about New Jersey

You don't see this every day in a shopping mall parking lot: an exhibit of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel artwork.

I visited there last night and took these photos.

Here's further information about it posted on the sponsor's website:
"Up Close: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel" recreates the awe and wonder of one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements, while allowing its visitors to experience this art from a new perspective. The ceiling paintings from the Sistine Chapel have been reproduced using state-of-the-art technology. In order for the observer to fully engage and comprehend the artwork, the paintings have been reproduced in their original sizes.

Westfield Garden State Plaza will host the exhibit September 1-October 15th in the West Parking Lot nearest Lord & Taylor in Paramus.
Just another reason to love New Jersey.

PS- Regarding the artwork, I have to say... there was a lot of finger-pointing at the exhibit!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A New Generation Runs to a Crisis

My 9/11 Pinterest site
Driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike this morning – on the eve of the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- I saw a convoy of Con Edison trucks heading south, toward Florida, to help restore electricity in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The crews were speeding in the opposite direction of safety, because they knew they had a job to do.

I’m proud to see the same ethic on display at my own job.

I work in PR at Verizon, and I know colleagues who are, right now, staffing Florida command centers 24x7 in hardened facilities state-wide, built to withstand Category 5 winds. They are already assessing damage and coordinating with emergency management teams to provide support as soon as it is safe and possible. Just as other colleagues did in Texas last week… and just as still others did nearly 16 years ago today.

I recently had the chance to review and comment on a publisher’s proof of a history of Verizon. Although I was with the company on 9/11/01, I was lost in the details of my own experience while safely in Midtown Manhattan, and so I was astounded and moved to read the detailed story of the extraordinary bravery and commitment to service by workers at Ground Zero who miraculously reopened the New York Stock Exchange just days later.

I’ve been archiving materials I’ve come across about these efforts. I’ve posted them on this Pinterest page. The most amazing artifact is a 38-minute video of the key participants who led efforts to restore service, in their own words.

This year, I’m also sharing a separate Google folder of archival photos detailing the damage to Verizon’s communications hub at 140 West Street, adjacent to Ground Zero, just days after the attacks.

Part of Verizon’s employee Credo is that “we run to a crisis, not away” – and since 9/11/01, many thousands of employees have been on site to repair and restore damaged networks, and still more have responded with monetary aid and donations to about three dozen emergency situations through the company’s Disaster Relief Incentive Program. This includes Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama, and – just this past week – Hurricane Harvey, the Mexico earthquake and now Hurricane Irma.


This afternoon, as I was writing this, I retweeted a network status update from Verizon’s Florida PR contact, Kate Jay. When I did, I happened to see the tweet below by John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, promoting his “Slow Cook Sunday” Facebook Live feature, just a few hours after Irma made landfall on the Florida coast.

Legere has amassed more than 4 million Twitter followers and often insults competitors. One recent Sunday morning, he retweeted a story about the first-ever telescopic picture of a black hole. “Wait…” he commented, “Is this a photo of Verizon’s soul??”

It was a joke; I get it.

But this Sunday, I’m not in the mood to laugh.

Yes, Verizon does have a soul. The evidence was on display in 2001, just as it has been this Sunday.

We run to a crisis.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Two Evergreen Books, And One Rotten Movie

“Wonder” is a wonderful story, with great and uplifting messages (“Be kinder than necessary!”). It's a book I highly recommend for young readers. My only “critical” observation as an adult reader: this is definitely a young-adult book written for young adults.

Duh, right?

The point is, I’ve read, and more enjoyed, other YA fiction that is more nuanced. In “Wonder,” you get sections of trite observation (every housekeeping instruction provided over a loudspeaker at a kid’s first sleepaway camp), and black-and-white conflict resolution.

Still, the author is clever – and the story is (thankfully) told from multiple (non-adult) viewpoints. The point-of-view of the main character’s sister is unexpectedly honest. Suspending disbelief, I was also won over by the guileless character of Summer, and it was refreshing to read an unironic account of a supportive family life.

It makes me sad to think that “Wonder”’s setting in Manhattan’s “North River Heights” really might be mythical in more ways than one.

I also felt guilty about thinking this book was not “adult enough” in tone, so I recently purchased a copy of “Charlotte’s Web” on audible.com – if only to hear E.B White read his own children’s story. It’s been many years since I first read it.

What a treat to listen to! Despite having talking animals in a land that, unlike “Wonder,” has little in common with where I live and society today, “Charlotte’s Web” was genuinely enthralling. Go figure. I attribute this to the extraordinary craft of E.B. White’s writing. If R.J. Palacio doesn’t measure up in this regard… well, she’s in good company, because I can’t think of anyone else alive who does.

I do suspect, though, that R.J. Palacio’s novel will age well. It has some timeless themes, and you should read it yourself. It's likely to be better than the upcoming movie, which, from previews, looks to be even more sanitized.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a decidedly unsanitized movie I re-watched after many years: “MASH.” It was so epically bad I felt compelled to post my first IMDB review after viewing it. I just wanted someone, someday to know that this was where I drew the line between good and bad, evergreen and rotten:

 Bob's First IMDB Review
When I saw this movie in the '70s, I was intrigued by it. It came out around the time of the book "Ball Four" (and, in contrast, the movie "Patton") and all made me think. In fact, I saw this movie on the same bill as "Patton." Seeing this movie last week (August 2017), I was horrified by it. It's truly awful: mean-spirited, condescending and misogynistic. I think it might even have spread seeds for the anti-left feelings (and the resulting election of Donald Trump) for many people in my generation.
I'm still a liberal, but I can only hope I've aged better than this movie.
I should have added that the film was racist and homophobic, but, you know, I generally try to keep things upbeat. I try to be kinder than necessary.

And… I get it: It was a breakthrough film in a different era. Robert Altman was a genius. It had adult themes (it was even initially rated X). The real villains are not the protagonists but those who perpetrated the background war.

I get it – and I’ve also posted on the how-liberal-hate-fueled-the-Trump-election theme before.

I get it, and I’m still not going to waste another second of my life on "MASH."

Perhaps you have two hours to kill this upcoming Labor Day weekend, in these waning hours of civilization before North Korea is provoked into dropping the Big One on Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan.

Before you consider spending those two hours watching "MASH," here’s my suggestion: Spend the first hour reading an E.B. White essay called “Here Is New York,” and spend the next hour going for a walk with someone you love.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

New York City, Stylized by Google

Passing through the iconic Rotunda Room at The Pierre for my daughter's 21st birthday dinner in November 2013, I awkwardly snapped a photo with my cell.

Thus began a long, strange relationship with me and Google Assistant, which has since automatically stylized a number of photos I've taken in New York City ever since.

I don't know what about New York makes the algorithm in a Google Photos folder want to constantly filter scenes from the city -- and so often in black and white, as if my life were a Woody Allen movie.

You can view 40 of these filtered photos in this shared folder.

I've taken thousands of photos over this time, but it's always the ones in New York that Google automatically chooses to filter. It must be a city that enchants even our new robot overlords.

The thing is -- except for the black-and-white images -- I don't think the filters add romance or glamour or perspective to the real thing.

New York is an extraordinary place, with a singular style... and even on Google Assistant's best day it can't match the inspired opening of "Manhattan," set to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

I adore New York; I romanticize it all out of proportion. I am especially comforted by the thought that it will always be bigger than Google.

 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Build a Cathedral With the Sound of Your Own Voice

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City
In our video age, what’s the most underappreciated communications medium?

It’s the powerful magic inherent in the sound of our own voices.

This, according to Vivian Schiller, an accomplished and respected strategist who recently spoke at Verizon’s campus in Basking Ridge, NJ, about the intersection of journalism, media and technology.

She shared insights about fake news and other vital topics, but when asked about emerging trends, she had a surprising observation.

Vivian noted a resurgence in the form and popularity of “podcasts” (for want of a better word). That is, short-form audio that can be streamed or downloaded, as an effective tool of modern communications.

“After print, audio is the oldest form of media,” she said. “It’s the only form of media you can consume while you’re doing something else. You don’t need to look at it.”

Vivian Schiller
She continued, “There’s something magic about audio. It’s deeply personal.”

---------

Think about it. Is there anything more intimate than someone whispering in your ear?

This is primal. Images left to our imagination can be much more powerful than images presented to us, and filtered, for our appreciation or entertainment.

Words are symbols representing something based in reality. Strung together – adding a human voice, either in song or spoken word, with flow and melody and meaning – mere words become something more than reality. They become the bricks and mortar we can use to build our own cathedrals.

Think of the Bible story of Elijah, who went to look for God on top of Mount Horeb:
A strong wind ripped through the trees and sent large rocks crashing like pebbles against the side of the mountain. But God was not in the wind. When the wind stopped, an earthquake nearly toppled the mountain. But God was not in the earthquake. When the earth settled, a fire spread through the uprooted trees.
Elijah sighed wearily, unmoved by all the destruction. He returned to his cave, content to wait for the fire to burn itself out because he knew God was not in the fire.
The next morning, waking from a dream, he heard a close but barely perceptible sound. The prophet staggered to his feet then fell to his knees and hid his face in the sleeve of his coat. He was shaking with fear, because he knew God was in the whispering voice.
In my own life, I consider how I am spending more and more time these days listening to audio books, which has reignited my love of literature and sparked my curiosity about many topics outside the scope of my career.

I also think of my continued fascination with poetry.

Experimenting with audio a few months ago, I posted about how I had recorded an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet my late Dad used to recite to my mother, so that Mom could listen to it today on her Amazon Echo.

Today, I'm trying another experiment, to share with a wider audience: In an 8-second-attention-span world, I’m inviting you to listen to a spoken-word, 8-minute excerpt from something I wrote a long time ago.

The scene is set is the grandeur of the very real St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It’s about an ordinary man’s dreams and a lost love named Virginia. In all the thousands of words I’ve ever written, these 1,200 are perhaps my favorite.

So, inspired by Vivian and summoning the gods of underappreciated magic, I invite you to listen to my story. It begins, “After a fitful night...



Monday, July 17, 2017

Three Haikus Walk Into a Bar...

The first orders beer
The second, a sparkling water
The third poem stays dry
It's no joke that I'm a fan of poetry, whether it involves memorizing passages or yesterday's post about writing sonnets on demand.

I've lately also been experimenting with using haikus (or a bastardized version of a haiku, which is sometimes all I can manage) as captions for my Instagram posts.

For what it's worth, I'll plant three examples right here, virtually water them, and otherwise include no commentary. Let's see how long they live:

Casting sheets of clouds
Over a muddy river
Ohio, as a ghost


Captured, brown and green
We hold hands in bright colors
And head for the light


Rain at dusk in Queens
Exploding sky to the west
Gatsby in New York

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Poetry on Demand

This week I posted a #TBT photo to my Instagram account -- and it got me thinking.

This street poet I admired during a recent trip to New Orleans reminded me how much I used to like writing sonnets. So I had started this one on Wednesday night:

I have encased my soul in tempered glass,
Displayed it on the mantel in our home.
The frame collects the dust beside the vase
Of silk flowers embed in styrofoam. 
Beneath this centerpiece, a raging fire,
Timer-controlled, heats wood that doesn't burn.
The warmth is real, and I am safe. Desire
Consumed, I wait alone for love's return. 
Then in you walk...

I fell asleep at this cliff-hanger at the start of the third stanza. Thursday, after all, was just another working day, and (as Paul Simon sings in a favorite of mine, "American Tune") I needed to get some rest.

I was struggling to finish this at home on Friday, weary from the week. It was quiet in our living room, and I looked at my wife reading in the corner, when the 9 o'clock church bells started to ring at nearby Ascension parish. The church has a tower, but it is empty of an actual bell. Instead, there's just a speaker that plays recorded chimes throughout our neighborhood.

That's when I took out my trusty notebook -- one a friend from work, Jason Moriber (now forever remembered here), unexpectedly bought me one day as we were hanging out during lunch hour in New York -- and I came up with this:

I have encased my soul in tempered glass,
Displayed it on the mantel in our home.
The frame collects the dust beside the vase
Of silk flowers embed in styrofoam. 
Beneath this centerpiece, a raging fire,
Timer-controlled, heats wood that doesn't burn.
The warmth is real, and I am safe. Desire
Consumed, I wait alone for love's return. 
Then in you walk... Alarms trip. Cats take flight
And lose several lives. A fake church bell sounds.
You flip the light. Night is day; day is night.
Hamlet, without doubt; Ophelia, undrowned. 
My kingdom would be bound in a nutshell,
Had not your flame out-scorched suburban hell.

I was thinking of a favorite line from "Hamlet" at the end -- "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not for my foolish dreams."

Well, actually, Shakespeare wrote "bad," not "foolish" -- so that's just me.

Anyway, on Instagram -- and now forever here too -- I am offering to write a sonnet on demand for anyone. Just send me a topic and the reason why you chose it (bvar@verizon.net).

Like the virtual street poet I hope to become, I'll do my best to deliver poetry on demand.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Re-opened: St. John the Baptist Cathedral, Paterson


An intriguing story in The Record reported on yesterday's dedication ceremony at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Paterson, NJ -- a church that has been closed for renovation for six years.

The church is 152 years old, and after portions of the ceiling began to fall, the Diocese of Paterson embarked on a $17.4 million project to restore the structure to its previous grandeur. A priest who attended the dedication said, "It's the closest place to heaven there is in New Jersey."

After a packed house for the 1 p.m. Spanish Mass filed out of the church on the first Sunday after its re-opening, I filed in and took these photos.

The place was gorgeous -- and full of life. I was hardly the only one taking cell-phone photos (although I was the only one to sneak up the metal spiral staircase to the choir loft, where I took the photo at the top of this page).

The church holds special meaning, because my uncle was ordained there. Then-engaged Mom and Dad had eagerly attended this ceremony, since they wanted Julian to officiate at their wedding. The proudest person in the church that day was Nonna, my grandmother, who turned to her husband in the parking lot and insisted, "Varry (my grandfather's nickname, an abbreviated form of Varettoni), you CAN'T sit in back of the church today. You have to sit up front with me!"

I believe he did, too -- although I have no photos to prove it. On a recent visit to Fr. Julian's house, I had combed through his old photos, and the closest I found was this:


It's a vintage Holson Stereo Slide Viewer, battery operated, with slides and a storage case. I looked at a few of the slides and happened to take a photo through the viewing lens of my uncle, dressing for his ordination at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in 1955.

I suppose, 62 years from now, the album I posted today in Google Photos will seem just as quaint and curious as the Holson viewer... or, maybe, the things we send to the cloud today will become irretrievably buried in a sea of data. Perhaps all will be lost, because it isn't tangible.

At least our cathedrals should survive.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Happy Birthday, New Milford


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

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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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




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