Sunday, April 29, 2018

Military Appreciation Month: The Story Behind the Stars

Drive around my hometown -- New Milford, NJ -- and you'll notice street signs that display a gold star next to the same names that are inscribed on our Veterans’ monument in front of Borough Hall.

What are the stories behind those stars?

May is Military Appreciation Month, and the New Milford Historic Preservation Commission recently produced a presentation that provides the extraordinary details of some of these stories.

You can scroll through the entire 40-slide presentation -- produced by my wife, commission chair Nancy Varettoni -- here:

 

The first few slides highlight New Milford's rich history as the first permanent settlement in Bergen County. Here's a separate Historic Commission brochure that summarizes that detail.

What especially intrigued me were the photos and profiles beginning with Slide 14: pilot Louis J. Faller, just 24 years old and New Milford's first resident to die in World War II.

Much of this source material is thanks to Teresa M. Martin, a long-time educator in New Milford's middle school, who in 1947 published a booklet about the 563 men and women in the borough who joined the Armed Forces (and the 223 citizens who volunteered as members of the local Defense Council) during World War II.

In the slides that follow, we learn that Henri Neil Reichelt, also 24, died during the sinking of the USS Juneau, after fierce fighting near Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Nancy researched this battle to learn (from a Washington Post story) that five brothers had died when the ship was torpedoed by a lurking Japanese submarine I-26. The fatal torpedo had missed the nearby USS San Francisco and struck the Juneau near the compartment where munitions were stored. The ship exploded instantaneously, broke in two and both parts sunk within 20 seconds.

We also learn about the life of Frank J. Rosse before he was killed in action in January 1945. The second lieutenant had come from a family of musicians. Before being drafted into the Army, he played guitar in a trio with his two sisters. After his death and joined by a third sister to perform as The Fontane Sisters, his siblings sang with Perry Como on several hits, including "A, You're Adorable."

We learn, later, that Richard T. Shea Jr. married Joyce Riemann of New Milford before dying in the Battle of Pork Chop Hill in July 1953. He posthumously was one of 145 Korean War veterans to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry and courage. His son, Richard III, was born two days after his death.


The last profile is that of James B. Woods Jr., just 19 years old when he died after injuries suffered when his helicopter was shot down over Vietnam in August 1969. Young Mr. Woods was the manager of the McDonald's in the neighboring town of River Edge, NJ, before enlisting in the Army. His father flew through a combat zone in Vietnam to be at the side of his comatose son when he died at an evacuation hospital in Da Nang.

The elder Mr. Woods returned home to New Milford on a plane with his son's casket -- and the caskets of six other sons, from six other towns, who had all died in the fighting in Vietnam.

May is Military Appreciation Month, and the stories behind the stars deserve to be heard and honored.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Re-Visiting Some Old Friends on World Book Day

Green light at the end of my patio
Great books evoke feelings in us that are different today than they were yesterday, and that will probably be different tomorrow.

Well, maybe not literally tomorrow, April 23 -- which happens to be World Book Day.

But what better occasion to examine the changing relationships we've had with the books in our lives?

I'll go first -- and name three, beginning with...


"Lolita"

Which -- unlike you or me -- hasn't aged very well.

As I've written before, I was half the age of Vladimir Nabokov's protagonist when I first read "Lolita." It enthralled me. When I last read it, I was about the age of Nabokov himself when he wrote his love letter to the English language. It repelled me.

(You can always count on a blogger from New Jersey for a fancy prose style.)

In the intervening years, my wife and I raised two daughters. This taught me two things: 1. Life is precious. 2. People aren't as smart as they think they are.

"Genius" is a word that appears many times in Nabokov's book. I get it. "Lolita," this Lolita, is a Work Of Art... as the reader is reminded with every turn of the page.

These days I view this "genius" as simply #FakeLanguage masking real-life horrors of women being beaten and demeaned. There is no great poetic love there. It's all just an artifice of pretty words about pedophilia played out in prostitution, threats and manipulation, as Lolita cries herself to sleep every night.

Still, literary genius is real, and it can sneak up on you when you least expect it, like...

"Slaughterhouse-Five"

Which has grown better with age.

Re-listening to it recently, I found myself unstuck in time.

When I first read it in college, I thought Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was trying too hard to be clever, and I simply found it silly.

Still, I gave the book another chance in Audible format, because I've lately grown to love listening to books on my workday commutes down and up Route 287 in New Jersey -- which is otherwise a soul-sucking exercise.

The actor James Franco was narrating, describing a movie about American bombers in World War II. Protagonist and time-traveler Billy Pilgrim was experiencing the movie backwards. The passage described the bombs being sucked back into the planes, and the cylinders being dismantled. Female workers separated the dangerous contents into minerals, and specialists in remote locations returned these minerals to earth, "hiding them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again."

I had to pull over to the side of the road, because I was so totally and unexpectedly touched and amazed.

Which is the way I feel every Memorial Day weekend, when I re-read...

"The Great Gatsby"

This is my true, beloved and ageless friend. This slight book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which recently turned 93 years old, never fails to renew my love for great writing and the power of imagination.

As I've also written before, it's not a plot-driven thriller. Instead, it's episodic and dream-like.

There's something uniquely American about this book... and something uniquely resonant about a tale that begins right as summer begins and ends right as summer ends.

When I used to drive my daughter back and forth from college in Washington DC, we sometimes listened to "The Great Gatsby" together during the car ride. The magic of the words seemingly dissipated traffic because we never quite made it to the end of the book by the time our journey ended.

Things often ended abruptly in the smouldering hotel suite at The Plaza -- when there was still the possibility Gatsby might end up with Daisy. My daughter and I were always just as happy that the story ended right there.

As far as we're concerned, Gatsby never went for a swim before they closed up his pool.

And as far as I'm concernced, America is still -- even after all these years -- a land where anything, even "happily ever after," is possible.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Book About a Big Company That’s Bigger Than Itself

What did it take to get the U.S. stock market up and running just days after the 9/11 attacks? What was Steve Jobs like as a business partner? How does a company close a $130 billion transaction, or choose a new CEO, or disrupt a successful business to stay successful?

“Verizon Untethered” provides an insider’s insight into these questions.

It’s a readable primer of interest to business students, technology geeks, or anyone curious about the collective impact of individuals who work together with a common purpose.

Many stories in this book are from the point of view of Ivan Seidenberg, the longest-tenured CEO in America before his retirement in 2011. The book also includes insights and stories from several dozen business leaders of Verizon and its predecessor companies, dating from 1983 up to present-day CEO Lowell McAdam. The text is interspersed with rare photos, and commentary from consultant Ram Charan about business "lessons learned" that are more relevant in 2018 than ever.

Scott McMurray is the author, but I suspect much of the book’s readability is due to the efforts of Joellen Brown, who is cited in the acknowledgements as helping to provide historical context, research materials and several reviews for accuracy.

Joellen, my friend and former colleague, recently retired as chief speechwriter for Verizon C-level executives and head of the company's executive communications team. She is a masterful editor. Based on her involvement in this project over the past two years, I asked her recently what she thought were key takeaways from this book.

She noted:

  • The development of the wireless business, almost from birth, and the parallels between wireless's early years and the current challenges in growing Oath, telematics, and other new businesses.
  • The audacity of some of the strategic choices (e.g., Fios, AirTouch, even the aborted TCI deal). Hindsight sometimes turns bold moves into sure things... worth emphasizing that risk-taking has always been part of the strategic DNA of the company.
  • The quest to make networks matter, and the longstanding belief that technological leadership would translate into competitive advantage.
  • The role of culture in the building of a company. Or (maybe this is the same point) the primacy of culture over personality/individual ego.
  • What makes a merger work? The book is full of mergers and acquisitions that work, but also plenty that didn't. What's the difference?

Joellen Brown, center, with Lauren Tilstra and me, 2017.
Finally, she asked about Verizon’s “essential character”: “If you could transport yourself back to 1984, what would you recognize as familiar to the Verizon of 2018?”

With full disclosure, let me try to answer that.

If one takeaway from this book is, “Verizon is not your father’s phone company,” I know that for a literal fact. My father worked 35 years for New York Telephone, NYNEX and then Verizon, and I have worked 33 years for NYNEX, Bell Atlantic and now Verizon. Still, it has never seemed that I have worked for the “same company,” even over the course of my own career, since whatever-the-company-is has changed so radically over that time.

“Verizon Untethered” is the story of that radical change, told from the perspective of people I’ve been honored to know and work beside.

There’s irony in this story too. Verizon has been changed by outside forces that it itself has hastened and enabled. The infrastructure and new technologies deployed by Verizon and its predecessor companies have been the prime catalysts for sweeping changes in the way we all live, work and play.

So to answer Joellen’s question, I would say simply:

Verizon, existentially, has always been a part of something bigger than itself.

The people who work there realize that – they always have, and always will. That connected-ness has added value to the world, added value to customers, and added value to our personal and professional lives.

In that spirit, all proceeds from this book are being donated to the VtoV Fund, which provides emergency assistance to Verizon employees unable to live in their primary homes after a natural disaster. There are no administrative fees; every penny goes to someone in need, and the Verizon Foundation provides a match for every dollar donated.

In the end, “Verizon Untethered” isn’t a history book about a company. If history has taught us anything, it’s that companies come and go. This book tells stories about people, and the things some people do to try to make a positive difference in the world.

---

“Verizon Untethered” (publication date: May 1, 2018) is available for pre-sale now at Amazon and other book distributors.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Baseball's Best Lesson: There's More Met Than Yankee in Every One of Us

Double rainbow over Citi Field, 2017
It happens every spring. Baseball enters our lives to teach us new lessons.

What have I learned this year?

It’s simple, but profound -- and originally expressed best by author Roger Angell: There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.

This lesson begins with my boyhood awe and wonder, when my Dad took me to my first major league baseball game. He had elaborately tipped a cigar-chewing fat man in a ticket booth on 161st Street in The Bronx, and we wound up with field-level seats.

As we emerged through the concession area to face the field — me, a little boy holding his Dad’s hand — my first view of the impossibly green, cavernous Yankee Stadium field gave me goosebumps.

It’s perhaps the closest I’ll come to ever seeing Heaven. It was perfection.

Contrast that to another day soon afterward: my second visit to a major league game. My eccentric Uncle Charlie wanted to take me to the new Shea Stadium, built on the site of the 1964 World’s Fair.

He escorted me there on the New York City subway, which I had never been on before. I saw sights and sounds on my first ride on the No. 7 train — especially on the elevated section through Queens — unlike anything I had encountered growing up in the New Jersey suburbs. Years later, at an arts film festival in college, I had a flashback to this subway ride when viewing Fellini’s “Satyricon.”

Uncle Charlie opted for the cheapest tickets available. We wound up in the top, nose-bleed section of Shea, and we climbed the steeply-pitched stairs as if we were scaling a mountain. During the game, I gripped both sides of my seat, white-knuckled, fearing I’d fall over onto the field far below. The wind howled and, not far above, giant planes made booming noises after takeoff or landing at LaGuardia.

It’s little wonder that I was a Yankee fan from that time on.



I have many fond memories of the team, culminating on Oct. 16, 2003, when my friend John Bonomo and I attended Game 7 of the AL Championship Series against the hated Red Sox. Aaron Boone, the current Yankee manager, perfectly ended a perfect evening of baseball with a memorable game-winning home run.

As years went by, however, something happened — to me or to the Yankees — that changed my perspective. When I went to the games, the fans seemed… entitled… well-off… and a little self-satisfied. It was just like looking into a mirror of who I had become myself. This has always been my greatest existential fear: that I would become just like everyone else.

Yankee baseball became a science or, worse, a business… and years followed featuring “grind-it-out” at bats, with every hitter working deep into the count, and each game a four-hour marathon.

One day, I found myself sitting with my feet up in an easy chair shouting at the YES channel, “Oh for Heaven’s sake, someone just take a swing at a first-pitch fastball right down the middle of the plate.” It was then I realized that rooting for the Yankees was turning me into a joyless old man.

---------

Stalking Mr. Met
Enter Mr. Met.

Mr. Met insidiously entered my life when I met my wife Nancy, a lifelong Mets fan. At a Halloween party in Lake Hopatcong, NJ, on Oct. 25, 1986, Nancy and I wore Hawaiian shirts we had purchased on our honeymoon, as we huddled to watch Game 6 of the World Series on a small TV while standing next to a stranger dressed as the Grim Reaper.

The Mets rallied for three runs to beat the hated Red Sox in the bottom of the 10th. As soon as announcer Vin Scully uttered those 12 immortal words — “Little roller up along first… BEHIND THE BAG. It gets through Buckner!” — I embraced my new wife and high-fived the Grim Reaper with pure joy.

Cue Ingmar Bergman.

So began a wonderful new chapter in my life, punctuated by the soundtrack of a Mets game on TV or radio during subsequent summers — through good times and in bad. When the Mets built their new home, Citi Field, a few years ago, Nancy purchased a memorial Fanwalk brick for her sister, a devout mother who died too young from cancer. She was also a lifelong Mets fan. There’s a replica brick displayed in our living room today, inscribed: “You gotta believe! In memory of Eileen. Love, Nancy.”



I’ve been to a few Yankees games since 2003, but many more Mets games. I was disappointed when I visited the new Yankee Stadium a few years ago and found it majestically enclosed around itself, like a museum.

In contrast, Citi Field is bright and open, filled with eccentric Uncle Charlies... happy, diverse people. The stadium has interesting nooks and crannies, fun promotional days (our living room also has an odd collection of bobble-head Mets dolls on display), and Nancy and I were once featured on the Kiss Cam. It’s like a carnival.

I love every silly thing about Mr. Met -- and I've stalked and photo-bombed him through the years. I love the song "Meet the Mets" and Citi Field's Home Run Apple. I love the team's engaging social media presence, and smart, irreverent SNY TV announcers. I love that nothing about the Mets, save for a Noah Syndergaard fastball or any pitch delivered by Jacob deGrom, can be described as majestic.

And, as a fan, because the Mets have endured more heartbreak than the Yankees, it makes celebrating with them even sweeter.

---------

This spring, for the first time in my life, I took off from work and went to a ballgame on Opening Day.

I took Nancy to Citi Field on the subway. We rode the MTA’s museum train, billed as “the train of many colors.” Train workers snapped photos of this No. 7 train as we started our journey at the Hudson Yards station. We sat in one of the 50-year-old trailing “redbird” cars, the same kind of car I had ridden with my Uncle Charlie.

As we traveled through Queens, a full mariachi band — including a full-size standup bass — went busking from car to car. It was still just like Fellini’s “Satyricon,” but with a better soundtrack. When we arrived at the Citi Field station, the MTA’s creaky old PA system played “Meet the Mets,” and Nancy knew all the words.

It was a joyous day. The Mets beat the Cardinals, but that was almost beside the point. The game renewed my spirit. I tweeted about it; I posted photos on Instagram. When my friend John questioned why I post items like this about the Mets, I told him I still consider that night in October 2003 a highlight of my life, and I still do root for the Yankees. There’s just something about the Mets that resonates even deeper with me these days.

Angell summed it up best in his book “The Summer Game.”

He wrote that cheering for the Yankees’ “perfection” is “admirable but a trifle inhuman.” The Mets’ “stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming.” He concluded that “exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.”

As I've learned, those are very wise words.

If there is a Heaven and I've got a ticket, I'd happily hold my Dad's hand again -- and this time tell him how much I loved him -- and enjoy a baseball game together at the old Yankee Stadium.

But these days... with Dad gone... here on Earth... I'd rather spend my time at Citi Field.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Blue Moon, Now I'm No Longer Alone...



These days, my two daughters sleep under the same roof only once in a blue moon. Literally.

Early Saturday’s blue moon – already the second of 2018 – was the last chance to see a blue moon in New Jersey until 2020.

Early on Easter Sunday morning, I’m writing this at the dining room table as both daughters are asleep in their bedrooms upstairs. Here’s photo evidence that someone else visited in the middle of the night…


It seems even the Easter Bunny knows that my daughters have grown up to become two incredible… and very different… people.

A blue moon is technically when two full moons appear in the same calendar month.

That’s nothing.

As a dad, I appreciate that having your children together in one place – happy, dreaming, warm, fed, loved -- is a heavenly event filled with more awe, wonder and rarity than anything the moon can muster.

As the smell of breakfast bacon rises from the kitchen, our old dog has curled her body to block the front door to try to keep anyone from leaving today. I know how she feels.

Yesterday, I experienced my own version of the Harrowing of Hell, which is Christ’s descent into the underworld on Easter Saturday to bring salvation to all the righteous who had died since the beginning of time. I braved traffic on the FDR to retrieve my younger daughter.

I didn’t rescue her by driving to Manhattan. She rescued me by coming to New Jersey.

Happy Easter to all!