Sunday, June 25, 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

At least our cathedrals should survive.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Happy Birthday, New Milford


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

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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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




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








 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Rutgers Gardens


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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Media Advice for Mascots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted on my LinkedIn page.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Laurel Grove Cemetery, Totowa

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

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

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

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



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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday in Teaneck


Earlier this afternoon, I was in the back row of The Puffin Cultural Forum, a non-profit performance space in Teaneck, NJ, listening to pianist Karine Poghosyan perform the nearly 40 minutes of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 (the one beginning da-da-da-DUM, arranged for solo piano by Liszt).

A few rows in front of me sat a man wearing a baseball cap with the plastic store tag still attached. It looped over his head like a small halo, bouncing to the music. The minor saint and I were both enjoying one hell of a performance, played with much spirit and without sheet music by Ms. Poghosyan, who has performed often in the New York area, as well as in her native Armenia.

It was just another Sunday in my native New Jersey -- which, to me, has always offered these various and beautiful moments.

At intermission, I took photos in the sculpture garden outside the main entrance. Here's a few I liked, starting with "Victim of War," by an unknown artist.


Here's "Roots of Empathy" by Nitza Danieli Horner.


And here's the Warrior of Cadmus, a large sculpture that dominates the garden, with the setting sun glinting off his mighty blade.


This was my favorite: "Distress" by David Adler. From behind, as photographed here, it looks like an angel. From the front it looks very different, but just as majestic.


How so, and why is it called "Distress"? Visit the sculpture garden of The Puffin Foundation and see for yourself. Follow the link for directions and additional information. The organization hosts various cultural programs, such as its "Classical Sunday" series. 


Explore New Jersey. I promise you, it will surprise you. Today, I took a small detour on my way home and discovered a tiny corner of the state filled with saints and angels and inspiring music. Not bad for an ordinary Sunday.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Quantum Physics of Eternal Beauty

Since everything on the internet is deathless, I'd like to share this photo of Mom.

In the mid 1950s she was known around Passaic, N.J., as “the girl in the photo shop window.”

For several years, a photographer had displayed a large portrait of her -- a print from his series of her engagement photos -- in the front window of his shop on Main Avenue.

As a result, Mom was a local celebrity: the Belle of Passaic. People would stop her on the street, or call out from a passing commuter jitney bus, or tap the glass while she was at her job decorating the storefront displays at Kresge’s – and ask if she was the girl in the photo shop window.

My Dad, her betrothed Navy officer, kept a 5x7 version -- the same print Mom keeps in an oval gold frame by her bedside today -- in his bunk aboard the U.S.S. Midway as it toured the Pacific. He even entered it into a Miss Midway contest, where Mom took second place. We reminded her of this every time our family played Monopoly and someone picked a yellow “You have won second prize in a beauty contest – Collect $10” card from Community Chest.

Fast forward to 2017, with Dad having died a dozen years ago.

At dinner last Sunday with the extended family, Mom told the story of visiting Dad's grave that morning and finding a scrap of garbage there. It was a box top from a line of hair-care products called "Forever Beautiful."

With a tear in her eye, she carefully pulled the torn cardboard from her wallet. None of us around the table understood what she meant. She explained that she thought it was a message from Dad calling her "forever beautiful" from beyond the grave.

I felt a little sad no one had picked up on this. Mom has always been beautiful -- and I know Dad would have told her so that day, if he could.

And then, the very next day, he did.

He did so through my youngest daughter -- who was always so close to him that they evidently developed a quantum entanglement. Their energy states are one, no matter how far apart they are. Even death does not separate them, and what happens to one can influence the other. It's the nature of love.

My daughter had spent the weekend decorating her small New York City apartment. While she was at work that Monday, my wife stopped by to pick up a ladder we had lent her for the chore. My wife texted me a photo of the finished project: My daughter had hung family photos over a faux fireplace, and in the place of honor was the portrait of the girl in the photo shop window.

I believe that photos, like words on a page, are all part of a grand experiment in quantum physics. It's why I love photography and why I love writing. It's impossible to predict with certainty the impact of anything we create and place out into the world.

In the case of my mother, the existence of this photo still influences our world after more than 60 years.

In a small apartment in New York City there's incontrovertible evidence, to this very day, that Mom is forever beautiful.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sunday, March 26, 2017

How Fantasy Baseball Forms Real Friendship

That's Pete, in the middle
Whenever baseball season begins, I think of Roger Angell’s famous observation about the game:

With time measured in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly, keep the rally alive, and the game never ends. You remain forever young.

I’ve also lately had a related thought:

If the most magical part of baseball is the way it suspends time, isn’t that also, precisely, the most magical part of friendship?

The two are connected in my own life – the timelessness of baseball and of friendship – in a very real way this week, as I prepare for the 32nd season of the Eastern Shuttle League, the Oldest Established Permanent Floating Fantasy Baseball League in the East.

The ESL was founded in 1985 by five recent college graduates from the New York area and five from New England (hence the league name, which refers to the now-defunct Eastern Shuttle airline route between New York and Boston). It was based on rules established in a 1984 book called “Rotisserie League Baseball” by Glen Waggoner, a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine.

We were all baseball fans, of course – but other than that, we really had little in common. My work friend and soon-to-be best man, Joe, new at the NY Archdiocese’s communications office, knew two guys from Syracuse University. We strong-armed another baseball fan who worked with us, he had a friend, that guy knew another guy…

The next thing you know, 10 of us were sitting around the back room of a now-closed dive bar called “La Hacienda” in Cambridge. We were surrounded – in the pre-web, pre-wifi era -- by plenty of cold beer, pizza and pages of handwritten notes, pre-season articles ripped from local sports pages and copies of Glen’s book and The Bible (the “1985 Sporting News Official Baseball Register”).

We spent the next few hours in raucous laughter, hurling insults at each other as we bid up to $260 to fill our 23-player slots of American Leaguers during a makeshift auction process. We argued baseball, made fun of each other’s draft selections, scared the hell out of the few women in the bar and grossly over-tipped the wait-staff.

We’ve never looked back.
  • We stopped playing for money before the end of the first season (which I WON, by the way, so somebody owes me big-time, considering the compound interest);
  • we’ve clung to team names that seemed oh-so-clever in the late ‘80s but are now just juvenile double-entendres (although I’ve long been the Bob Alous, which STILL seems clever to me);
  • we use the original rules and draft only American Leaguers (although I’ve only watched Mets games for the past few years – after all, as Angell also once wrote, "There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us" -- and now know practically none of the AL players, which is why I’ve never won since).
Notice how I dropped myself into every one of those statements? That’s pretty much an indication of how competitive the league has always been. I imagine it’s like growing up with a bunch of brothers, where you always have to be prepared to defend yourself.

I didn’t have any brothers growing up. Because of fantasy baseball, I’ve got some now.

---------

And, like brothers, we’re often pretty silly together.

One guy has long adopted Eddie Gaedel as his imaginary team’s manager. Eddie, the shortest player in MLB history, was hired by St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck to pitch hit during a meaningless doubleheader in 1951. He walked on four pitches. His jersey, bearing the uniform number " 1⁄8," is displayed in the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. You could look it up.

The ESL fantasy team owner, Ken G., is a talented writer with a whimsical flair. Over the years his detailed emails about his team, the KG Bees, written in Eddie’s voice, have come to rival anything Ring Lardner had ever written.

Eddie has become the ESL’s heart and soul: a foul-mouthed, wise-cracking midget with a Brooklyn accent, who provides weekly commentary on the fortunes of the Bees. Here’s a random sample from 2015:
The Bees front office exploded over the weekend with a testy, testosteroney "he said, wee said" battle of wills as the team's diabetic GM and dead midget manager lambasted one another for a dream thwee-peat season dashed to ruins. Giovanelli lambasted his pipsqueakity pilot for abandoning the club during the first six weeks of the season on a "selfish hellbent quest for Everest glory." He added, "And you had to go kick that freaking wolverine! It was all shit karma from that night on, yeti pelt be damned!!" Manager Eddie Gaedel in turn"wambastid" Mr. G over the team's humiliating fall from ESL dominance, blaming their ills on the GM's "wackwusta dwaft and keeping bweeping Jakobity!!" The two nearly came to bwows, until stalwart team members Brandon Moss and Mike Zunino (hitting a combined manly .199 on the season) separated the star-cwossed duo.
I know, it’s all a bit hard to explain. There was something about Eddie going to Napal and winning the Nobel Peace Prize that preceded this particular rant. And “Jakobity” is the expensively-priced (in ESL and IRL), under-performing Yankee, Jacoby Ellsbury. But you get the idea.

Not to be outdone by Ken, Joe often provides a hilarious preseason analysis of his team – the Joe Mammas -- in the voice of Casey Stengel, circa 1963.

Another team owner, Rich, once penned a song, “Don’t Worry, Be Lindy,” to the tune of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Don’t be fooled by any of this silliness, though. The free-spirited subject of the song, Lindy, has had a long and successful business career… just like one of the league’s other driving forces, the perpetually wise-cracking Roland (who fittingly displays a photo of Dr. Evil for his Facebook profile).

But now I’m naming names and getting too specific. If he ever reads this, Roland will probably kill me – and I’m not entirely sure that would be a first for him. I should stick with mentioning a few more general images:

There we are, all together at the end of the 1988 season at a sports bar in Manhattan, gathered around a big screen to watch Kirk Gibson take Dennis Eckersley deep in Game 1 of the World Series. There’s my baby girl, strapped into her carrier and propped next to me on the table the last time we held a draft at “La Hac.” There I am at my desk on 9/11/01, in an office building overlooking the World Trade Center – and the first email I received from anyone concerned about my safety… was from Roland.

There have been numerous births in the league since my daughter was born. Surprisingly few relationship breakups. Lots of job changes and relocations. Original ESL members have left and been replaced for so long that their replacements seem like original members. Cancer scares. Two deaths – one who overdosed from drugs after leaving the league many years ago; one last year, everyone’s dear friend Pete.

Pete was a lifelong Yankees fan and top executive at A&E Networks. We always had to make sure the April draft didn’t conflict with his travels to the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Vegas, or opening day at Yankee Stadium. When he died suddenly last summer, we didn’t know whether we’d keep the league active.

But then, within just a few days, it seemed even sillier to close down the league because of Pete. We’ve arranged for someone to take up the management of his team, and the players he had aggressively traded for who he was sure would have breakout seasons in 2017. For Pete’s sake (yes, Dennis already used that Dad-joke-of-a-phrase in a recent email to Larry and Bruce), we still make fun of his team just as much as when he was alive.

Pete would have liked that. Just as he would have liked knowing that Joe smuggled in a miniature plastic figure of Eddie Gaedel to his memorial service.

A group of us attended that service, not sure Pete’s family members would even know who we were. Yet when we introduced ourselves to his wife, daughter and sister, we were received as family. “It’s so good to see his friends from the ESL,” they said. “We’ve heard so much about you over the years.”

Such is the awesome power of shared experience, no matter what the circumstance.

So, do yourself a favor this year. Join a fantasy baseball league.

The baseball season will take on another life for you, in another dimension. No matter how bad your home team is, you’ve got your fantasy team, and all you have to do is succeed utterly, stay competitive, and the games never end.

You remain forever young.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

#weneedfewerkardashianwannabes



I posted this video on social because I thought it thought-provoking that when kids were asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” they said athlete, actor or model. Many see these as their only paths out of tough economic circumstances.

The #weneedmore program shines a light on the limited access to tech and educational resources available to too many students across the country. Millions of science and tech jobs could lead to a brighter future.

And then the first comment I saw was: "Yeah forget what makes you happy. Get that high paying job your parents and teachers want you to have and be miserable for the entirety of your f*ing life."

Am I missing the point?

It is, after all, a program sponsored by my employer. Perhaps Verizon should have named it #weneedfewerkardashianwannabes -- although, yes, the Kardashians are brilliant marketers. I wouldn't discourage any kid from seeking fame based on brilliance.

What do you think?

Friday, March 10, 2017

Lucy the Elephant, True Jersey

New Jersey can be magical.

Just a few miles in any direction can make all the difference between urban and rural, rich and poor, new and historic.

There’s also a blessedly thin line between ordinary and unique.

This past weekend, I was in an Atlantic City bar with some photographer friends, when one mentioned that Lucy the Elephant was just three miles to the south.

A short drive later and I was standing in front of the oldest surviving roadside tourist attraction in America: a whimsical six-storey structure built in 1881 by James V. Lafferty, and moved away from the shoreline and restored in 1970 through efforts led by two local Margate City residents.

Despite being a lifelong resident of the Garden State, I had never seen Lucy in real life. So, of course, I took a photo: nothing special, just something out of the ordinary to throw up on social media.

Lucy is surely an elephant to remember, though, because the image produced some out-of-the-ordinary responses:

One stranger wanted to know directions to Lucy. Another commented, “My very close friend’s father moved Lucy back in the ‘70s. Drove her right down Atlantic Avenue! That was a house-lifters dream to move such a legendary piece of history!” Still another stranger commented that her first summer job was as a tour guide at the site.

A friend reminded me that he had a summer house within walking distance from Lucy, if I ever needed to use it. My only sibling, a sister now living in California, added a smiley face with the comment, “Wow, I have not seen Lucy in a very long time!” Before I could reply wondering when she was there when I wasn’t, a high school friend of hers responded, “Remember Lucy? Lol!”

Lucy is “True Jersey,” resonating with people here – and people who remember “here” -- like The Shore.

On my drive back home that evening, just a few miles up the road, I noticed five giant wind turbines with elegant rotors slicing through the air after sunset. So, of course, I pulled to the side of the road and took another photo.

This is the Jersey Atlantic Wind Farm, just off the coast of Atlantic City. It’s the first wind farm to be built here and the first coastal wind farm in all the U.S. The site produces enough emission-free electricity per year to power over 2,000 homes.

The towering structures appear as if from nowhere… just miles from some of the state’s most densely populated urban areas, or sparsely populated farmlands, or the great expanse of Pine Barrens, where the Jersey Devil roams. This is my home: haunted by the sounds of bar bands on Saturday nights, church bells on Sunday mornings and commuter trains to New York City on Mondays.

Before leaving, I turned back for one last look at the skyline… and saw my name, “Bobby V,” in bright 12-storey lights along the whole western facade of Harrah’s  Resort.

How extraordinary, I thought. So, of course, I took another photo.

Others may point out that Bobby V will be performing at Harrah’s later this month. But, in “True Jersey” style, I prefer to think that whatever the R&B singer’s schedule might happen to be, it was merely coincidental to the thrill of seeing my name in lights.

It’s all a matter of perspective, a little geography, and a home-grown faith in magic.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Man Called Bob... I Mean, Ove

A Man Called Ove
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In my last Goodreads review, I ranted like a grumpy old man about the value of "storytelling." So how unexpectedly great it has been to listen to a story (Audible version) about a literal grumpy old man and re-remember the lesson that a great story can change your perspective in life-affirming ways.

Yes, the grumpy-old-man-masking-a-heart-of-gold-and-an-intriguing-backstory has been done before. But this tale is unsentimental and rings true. Fredrik Backman, you had me at the first haunted words Ove addressed to his wife.

Not only is this pure storytelling at a high level, but this particular version of the story has been translated from Swedish to English. How hard is it to capture the rhythm of literature and not sound a flat note in another language? I used to have a Latin teacher, a mild-mannered Roman Catholic priest -- and every year he watched young scholars struggle with translating Catullus. It was an incredible experience for him, especially considering the source material. One thing he said he learned was captured in an Old World, no longer-politically-correct maxim: "Translations are like women; the more beautiful they are, the less true."

So I give this book an extra star because of its talented translator -- Henning Koch -- who seems to have produced an English version of this book that's both beautiful and true.

I'm also resisting an urge to that star away, since Ove's beloved "Saab" may someday re-appear as a brand and this book would then fall into the hands of that most reviled of all storytellers, the content strategist. But until that day comes, I stand by this review.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Is Storytelling Overrated?

A Head Full of GhostsA review (of sorts) of:
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In August 2015, Stephen King -- yes, THE Stephen King (if we are to trust Twitter's blue checkmark) -- tweeted: "A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS, by Paul Tremblay: Scared the living hell out of me, and I'm pretty hard to scare."

So, who am I to argue the King? And yet... I found most of this story, save for some cleverly written blog entries by the main character, to be excruciating rather than scary. Perhaps because I raised two daughters in real life, and the plot here centers around two young sisters.

I also started to think about my grandmother as I slogged through this tale. She died years ago, but this book made me recall how she used to wonder why anyone read would fiction. "It's just silly stories," she'd say.

Now, admittedly, she was a Bible reader, so she did take some stories as a matter of faith (which this book dutifully ridicules). But, setting that debate aside, her main point was: "Why waste your time?"

Of course, here in 2017, storytelling is supposed to be the answer to everything... love, happiness, marketing, effective communication... you name it.

The Twitter background of my boss (who is real, despite not having a blue checkmark), even features this quote from Plato: "Those who tell stories rule the world."

As I listened to the Audible version of this book, though -- realizing it was a masterful writing job, and I'm sure the movie will be successful and that the author will be, if not already, rich -- I kept wondering, "Why am I wasting my time? Haven't I seen, read or heard all this before?"

In fairness, I picked up this book to be scared -- and, on one level, I think I am. But not because of all the predictable gore and manipulated shocks in this story.

I'm scared because I think my sainted grandmother might have been on to something, after all. Sometimes a story is just a cigar and a cigar is just a story. If the words aren't Great Gatsby transcendent, if the ideas they express aren't New Testament challenging or enriching, then what the hell am I doing here in 2017?

Am I simply spending my time begging to be frightened, or entertained?

"Tell me a story" may indeed be a building block of love (intimacy), happiness (connection), marketing (persuasion) and effective communication (acceptance).

It just doesn't get us any closer to greater meaning or insight or -- as I think of my grandmother -- redemption.


View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Communications Lessons* From the 2016 Election (*alternative fact included)

More than 1 million people attended IABC-New Jersey’s recent panel discussion at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Madison, NJ, campus.

OK, that’s really an alternative fact.

Still, it was challenging to try to steer clear of politics and focus on communications lessons. Luckily for the energized and engaged audience of more than two dozen, moderator and former IABC-NJ board member Rich Ecke of Berry Ecke Associates handled things like… a consummate politician.

He, along with panelists Dan CassinoBen Dworkin and Pat Politano resisted any urge to “re-litigate” the election results, and in the context of the “takeaways for communicators,” several themes emerged.

Authenticity.
“Who wants to be inauthentic?” Dworkin, who teaches political science at Rowan University, asked rhetorically. The new reality, he explained, is that the way to create authenticity has changed. The old rule of authenticity, Dworkin said, was that you apologize for a mistake and move on; the new rule is to not apologize and stick to your guns.

The old rule: media endorses your authenticity. The new rule: the media is a foil.

Cassino, who teaches political science at FDU, added that “authenticity is now in the eye of the beholder” and is “something we build for ourselves.” What does inauthenticity sound like? That’s easy: when one political candidate sounds just like all other political candidates. Just like when one company uses the same PR approach as every other competitor in its industry.

Dworkin also cited an unchanged rule when it comes to authenticity in business communications: “In business, if you have a lousy product, it doesn’t matter if you’re authentic.”

Simple Messages.
Politano, a political media consultant and strategist, said that the effectiveness of a simple message is still the greatest takeaway from the past election season. And while a political campaign has an end date, and an election is a fixed moment in time, business communicators need to have a sustainable message. “Big messages still matter,” Politano said. “Only the method of delivery has changed.”

Social Media.
“Reporters live on Twitter,” Cassino observed. Candidate Trump’s tweets drove and dominated coverage, which in turn drove public opinion. Dworkin called it “The Twitter Election,” and Politano said that the increasingly fewer number of journalists, “chained to desks in newsrooms,” were increasingly relying on Twitter as a news source.

Cassino noted that the Associated Press, for example, now has only one part-time reporter covering New Jersey, and that the “hollowing out” of the media ranks has put reporters “in a bubble.”

Still, Politano noted, Twitter is simply a tool to the message, and clarity, simplicity and directness are hallmarks of effective messaging that cut through clutter, especially in a business environment. And especially, if messages can be stated in less than 140 characters.

New Rules.
Dworkin, Cassino, Politano and Ecke (not a rock band)
Dworkin returned to the theme of old vs. new rules. The old rule was “message discipline.” The new rule, he said, is that the effectiveness of clear, simple messaging depends on the situation, and that this election season proved the value of keeping competitors off-balance and NOT having message discipline, especially in highly competitive business environments.

One audience member commented that a lack of message discipline seemed counter-intuitive in business communications. Dworkin responded that Trump kept his competition off-balance and unable to counterpunch effectively. Also, the timeliness of the attacks fueled the news value of the attacks.

Politano said, “Trump’s uniqueness enabled him to use this tactic. He’s been doing this for years. It’s his brand.” Cassino added that a changing message can be effective in business if it’s used to acknowledge problems, for example, because it demonstrates listening. ”The mere act of telling customers or employees that ‘I understand this is a problem’” can be a highly effective communications strategy for business leaders, he said.

Attracting Attention.
“You can’t replicate or copy Donald Trump,” Politano reiterated, “but you can take away lessons from his campaign… about how the media works now… about the effectiveness of acknowledging problems.” And about how to attract attention.

Business communicators, Cassino said, should know that “if you want to hide something, put it in a rote press release or standard memo. When you put out a ‘press release’ that doesn’t look like a press release, it will attract scrutiny. When people see something novel, they pay more attention.” Attention is neutral, and can turn positive or negative, but attention itself is hard to come by in today’s society.

Dworkin said, “When we talk to each other, we talk the same. Politicians all sound the same. Trump didn’t, at a point in time when people were looking for something different.”

The Politics of Change.
“Change” can be a compelling theme – for both politicians and professional communicators.

Politano offered a valuable insight about the inevitability of constant change. If there’s one thing a career in politics has taught him, he said, it’s that “everyone will say they want change, when the one thing that scares them the most is change.”

Politics aside, for IABC members who help business leaders communicate to employees, that too is an important lesson to keep top of mind.

This post first appeared on the website for the New Jersey chapter of the IABC.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Two Recent Books I've Read That Can't Be Reviewed

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book will be 20 years old this year, and there's nothing to "review" here. It's proven to be a fairy tale for our times, with an inspiring backstory about the author... and a catalyst for a generation of new readers. Magical things, all. Still, reading this for the first time in 2017 (or "listening to it," since it was only recently made available on Audible), it simply reminders me how quickly two decades can pass. I can't otherwise relate. The magic in my life is that I can close my eyes and vividly see my family years ago at the dinner table. We're laughing. It's a lively conversation. I've just asked my young daughters what they thought of the book. You can only imagine what Maddy had to say.

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second consecutive book I've read this month that defies being "reviewed." It's a testament and accounting of a man's life -- and death. Period. I would note, in review of Abraham Verghese's introduction, that Paul's friend promises transcendent writing and insight. Honestly, I found neither... despite that fact that Paul, in his own words, was truly heroic and inspiring. Besides, I don't think the author would have wanted us to look to him for transcendence -- or easy answers.

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Happy Birthday, Thomas Edison

I visited Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange, NJ, today -- on Thomas' 170th birthday. I posted some photos too.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

My Immigrant Family

This is my grandmother on her 99th birthday... 17 years ago this week. She was born in Ferno, Italy, and died before she turned 100. My other grandparents were born in Bacau, Romania, and Majdan, Poland. My grandfather's family is from Borca di Cadore, Italy. We are proud immigrants.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Is There Anybody Alive Out There?

This blog does everything wrong.

That’s the message I heard loud and clear as I sat through a webinar this past Thursday night: A successful publisher and editor disclosed strategies for building an audience and generating page views.

She had everything down to a science, exposing the flaws of this very site.

You see, I need to get outside of the need to express myself. That’s not what someone else needs. Oh, they’ll follow the arc of a personal story, and they’ll appreciate if I can share an insight I gained along the way, especially if it’s counter-intuitive. Because then readers will share the post to their own circle of friends to make themselves look helpful or clever.

As part of this marketing strategy, there’s also the all-important packaging… headline, images, layout… that can turn web posts into “small works of art.”

In a practical sense, I know she’s right. What I learned Thursday can be applied to anything I do in the business world.

In my heart, I also know she’s also wrong.

Click-bait isn’t art. Craft helps, but formulas don’t produce art either. Isn't art, at its core, an absolute celebration of self-expression?

Producing art is a primal force. Since the “brand theme” of this blog is New Jersey, I’ll illustrate it this way: Bruce Springsteen, before the E Street Band starts to play, shouting into the darkness, “Is there anybody alive out there?”

A Mid-Winter’s Poem

With this in mind, I'm posting something I wrote last night. I'm not claiming it's art; it's certainly not click-bait. It's just my small attempt to put a unique mark on the world.

I had been watching “The Last Waltz” on Netflix… marveling at the performance of a younger Van Morrison (“one more time”), when I was moved and haunted by The Band’s “Evangeline,” sung by a younger Emmylou Harris.

I let the dog out and a now-older me produced the first poem I've written in more than a dozen years, cheekily titling it in reference to Longfellow’s masterpiece. It's not necessarily addressed to anyone in particular, just to anyone alive out there in the forest primeval:

A Tale of Suburbia 
I summon you tonight, Evangeline.
As I behold the passage of time
In the breath of the bone-chilling cold. 
My old black dog.
Cloudy-eyed, shedding,
Struggles to his feet and
Shuffles to my side. 
I scratch his dry nose,
And open the back porch door,
Exposing the darkness.
The crack in my bones. 
Come, Evangeline,
Hear the scuttling of time.
The claws of the moments we lost.
My words in the bone-chilling cold. 
I long for the warmth of our souls.
I mourn for the warmth of our souls.