Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us...

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

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

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why Isn't Real Life Good Enough?

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

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

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

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Lessons From Rare Photos of Dad

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

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

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

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

Lesson two: Work hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His loyalty to me was incredible.

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

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

Dad didn’t know everything, though...

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

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

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

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

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


Here's something I previously posted about my Dad.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Auto-Tweeters: Delete Your Account

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

Delete your account.

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

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

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

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

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

Why weren’t these accounts silenced?

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted on my LinkedIn account.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Chasing the Gingerbread Man (Why I Run)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was originally posted on The Good Men Project site.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Unstructured, Unintentional Genius

BettyvilleBettyville by George Hodgman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last week I was struck, in a negative way, by a piece of advice to writers that I stumbled upon on Twitter: "Storytelling trumps beautiful writing, every time" (Lisa Cron). I thought of a book like "Lolita," which is genuine art with a pretty cheesy and inauthentic "story." Even the great "Great Gatsby" has a pretty slim plot. So I totally rejected that advice... and then I read this memoir.

It's beautifully written. Still, you could start reading any random page and pick up right where you left off... no matter where you left off. Maybe my brain has been programmed by all the other writers who are following Ms. Cron's advice to reject memoirs. Reading this book, I would have appreciated more structure, unless the structure here is meant to mimic Betty's addled mind -- in which case, this is genius.

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