Monday, December 30, 2019

Page 364 of 365, And I Can't Yet Close One Book

It's page 364 of 365, and I have been defeated in reaching my self-imposed challenge of reading 30 books in 2019.

I got stuck in the mud trying to finish the last three books I chose.

In fact, I still haven't finished the third: "Just Mercy," lawyer Bryan Stevenson's tale of his attempt to free a man wrongly condemned to die on death row.

I can't finish this book because every time I try to dive back in, I get too worked up: the injustice presented here is too overwhelming.

I chose this book on the recommendation of a friend who said it would "change your life."

It certainly has. I now trust no one.

This is "To Kill a Mockingbird," updated for our times, stripped of any literary pretensions.

There's a film adaptation too, and "Just Mercy" will premiere widely nationwide on January 10th. So yes, Roger, I'll see you at the movies.

Here are two other books that took me forever to finish:

Death in VeniceDeath in Venice by Thomas Mann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having fond memories of this novella from my school years at Notre Dame, I started reading the Kindle version... and found myself stalling, putting the book aside, then dreading to reattempt to follow the stilted language of the opening pages. This was the "Dover Thrift Edition," translated by Stanley Appelbaum. (In his prodigious and accomplished career, he had translated Ovid's "Art of Love," another book I fondly recalled from school.)

But I guess I'm not in Indiana any more. Having lived in New Jersey for so long, I can now officially confirm I have no patience.

I eventually tried the Audible version of a newer, award-winning translation (by Michael Henry Heim) read by Simon Callow. Somehow, listening to a sophisticated English accent made the passing words and story tolerable. But disappointing still.

I wasn't moved by the book. The main character is simply creepy. The decay of the setting isn't as profound as I once thought. The Venice of Gustav von Aschenbach is Disneyland compared to the portents in the real world today, Venice included.

College Me would have chalked up my disappointment to the translation. I've always been wary of literary works that are not in their native language. But as Michael Cunningham notes in his very wise introduction: "All novels are translations, even in their original languages... None of us reads precisely the same book, even if the words are identical."

The thing is, I can't tolerate leaden genius any more.

On this, perhaps Aschenbach and I would agree: Let me be awed and thunderstruck by all the simple beauty in the world, even as our world begins to fall apart.

Super Pumped: The Battle for UberSuper Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

THIS is a really good book... although not quite as good, even if in the same vein (excuse the expression), as last year's "Bad Blood."

The journalism here is terrific. The problem -- and why I kept putting this aside before finishing it -- is that there are no characters to root for.

Not only that, but all the bad guys -- and, yes, they are all guys -- wind up insanely rich in the end.

It was painful to read about all the excess, all the wasted wealth, all the casual crimes (the incident of a female Uber employee's head being forcibly shoved into a pile of cocaine is simply noted in passing).

There's no moral to this story, and so much damage done in the wake of Uber's success.

It's page 364 of 365, and I'm ready to close the book on the "Super Pumped" decade, when technology combined with greed to widen the gap between rich and poor.

I have to believe that in the 2020s, Mike Isaac will have better stories to tell.

View all my Goodreads reviews

Friday, December 27, 2019

Pics, Or It Didn't Happen

Walking up Fifth Avenue: I was there
If you find yourself on Fifth Avenue before January 19th, I recommend spending some time lost in the J.D. Salinger exhibit at the New York Public Library.

It's free, courtesy of J.D. Salinger Trust and coinciding with the centennial of the author's birth.

On public display for the first time are papers, photos and other personal items belonging to the quirky, reclusive literary icon.

Salinger didn't publish anything after 1965, 45 years before his death, but he evidently kept writing long after moving from New York to New Hampshire. So many notebooks, so many letters, so many words.

The family photos on display are particularly touching, even more so to me than his actual Royal typewriter or the handwritten margin notes on the author's galley of "The Catcher in the Rye."

I wish I could show you some of these items, but -- in true Salinger style, in this cramped exhibit space where you will be instructed to circle single-file from left to right -- no photos are allowed.

The hallway leading to the Salinger exhibit's guarded entrance
Cellphones, coats and bags need to be checked before you enter. You can take photos anywhere else in the library, just not here. It's strictly enforced. There's a guard at the front door and another inside ready to pounce on any raised, smuggled phone.

Which begs the question: Since I can offer no pictures of the exhibit, how can you believe I was there?


Photography stops time. It's magic... and intimate, and precious.

It's why I take candid photos of my family. Or why I have two Instagram accounts. Or why I've formed friendships with people who come home from work and wash up, then travel somewhere to capture a fleeting image.

All these photos I've taken have taught me to stop for a second, and marvel at the everyday things that hide in plain sight at the edge of the miraculous.

Every image proves I was somewhere; every somewhere never stays the same.

After retrieving my cellphone and coat after visiting the Salinger exhibit, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything.

All of a sudden, something very spooky started happening.

Every time I came to the end of the block, I had this feeling that I'd never get to the other side of the street. I thought I'd just disappear.

So I started to make believe I was talking to Salinger, and I'd say, "Please, Jerry, don't let me disappear."

When I reached the other side of the street, I raised my cellphone and took another photo.

Jerry, I knew, would understand. Having just had a glimpse into his real life, I realized he was just like everyone else. He wrote all those words because he was afraid to disappear too.


Happy New Year, every one. Here are my "Top 9" photos from my Instagram accounts in 2019:



Sunday, December 22, 2019

My 3 Hashtags

On Instagram, I post weekly pizza- and church-related photos (check out #njchurcheverysunday and #njpizzaeveryfriday).

These are sprinkled with random #datenight images from outings with the long-suffering (and much-beloved) @othersideofdatenight.

In captions this week, I briefly provided some context (see the posts embed below).

I invite you to follow me at @foundinnjOf course, I'll follow you back. Mostly, I post on social media to connect with and learn from others. I greatly admire people who create things.

Also, take a look at my "Found in New Jersey" Tumblr for daily posts of interest from around the Garden State.

Some posts there are not original, but all are attributed. They wouldn't have to be, though.

As Lin-Manuel Miranda once observed: "Everything is legal in New Jersey." 😎

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Offering Prayers for the Homeless on Thanksgiving

This morning at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, Dr. Kim Harris led the congregation's response in song to Psalm 34 (a psalm that, in its original form, is a thanksgiving in acrostic form, each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet):

"The Lord hears the cry of the poor; blessed by The Lord."

Nothing unusual about that. What followed was, indeed, unusual.

Iman Dr. Tahir Kukiqi of the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center was at the pulpit reciting from the Quran in his native language (just hours after a deadly earthquake had struck his homeland). It was, he explained, a message of hope -- and he ended his remarks by proclaiming, "God bless the United States of America." A video snippet follows.

Bishop Victor Brown of the Mt. Sinai Christian Church, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis and Rev. Que English of The Bronx Christian Fellowship Church also offered readings, remarks and prayers.

The theme among all these religious leaders was a re-commitment to eradicating homelessness. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan remarked, "If we don't speak out on behalf of the homeless, who will?"

Mayor de Blasio at the pulpit
James Addison shared his personal story of his journey from homelessness to, now, operations manager for Life Experience and Faith Sharing Associates, a group that serves the homeless. He urged Thanksgiving donations to organizations such as the interfaith Coalition for the Homeless.

Then Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped to the pulpit to remind all that the homeless are no different than any one of us.

"Every one of them fell down for a reason; it's our job to pick them back up," the mayor said.

He asked any who know of homeless individuals among their families or acquaintances to call New York's 311 hotline. City agents will work on individualized plans to bring loved ones to shelter.

Cardinal Dolan ended the simple interfaith prayer ceremony by noting that he would soon see his family for Thanksgiving, and that there are three words that universally give people a sense of warmth and joy:

"I'm going home."

Cardinal Dolan greeting students
The ceremony was especially meaningful to me, since I now work in Manhattan after spending years driving to and from a corporate park in suburban New Jersey. Homelessness isn't as hidden to me anymore.

Is this really an insolvable situation? Can prayer really help? Can money?

Relatedly, I received an email today from my alma mater, Notre Dame, on the 177th anniversary of the university's founding. It includes a wish for a Happy Thanksgiving, and this link to students in Our Lady's Concert Choir singing "The Road Home," Stephen Paulus' musical adaptation of a poem by Michael Dennis Browne.

Its next-to-last line is both eloquent and haunting: "There is no such beauty as where you belong."

Tell me where is the road I can call my own,
That I left, that I lost, So long ago?
All these years I have wandered,
Oh when will I know
There's a way, there's a road
That will lead me home? 
After the wind, after rain, when the dark is done,
As I wake from a dream in the gold of day,
Through the air there's a calling
From far away,
There's a voice I can hear
That will lead me home. 
Rise up, follow me, Come away, is the call,
With the love in your heart as the only song;
There is no such beauty as where you belong,
Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Non-Fiction for Adults: Weinstein to Hart to Nabokov

A book store in Nyack, NY; photo by @bvarphotos
With the untimely death of the New York Mets 2019 season, I’ve had time to catch up on some reading these past few weeks.

I realize, now, that all these recent reads have been non-fiction titles – and that last week, on the first Thursday in November, much of the world celebrated #NationalNonfictionDay.

For children.

While many great reads were suggested for young adults on social media last week, let me offer a few non-fiction titles reviewed for adults.

They are filled with words that are heavy with nothing but trouble: Weinstein to Hart to Nabokov.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading this book, I can’t even…

I can’t even believe the breadth and depth of Harvey Weinstein’s behavior – or his enablers.

I can’t even believe that NBC News refuses to conduct an independent investigation of how it botched the handling of this story.

I can’t even express how much I admire the tenacity and talent of Ronan Farrow.

Like “Bad Blood,” “Catch and Kill” is another great work of investigative journalism. It is an outstanding read, chronicling the abuse of power. It was the best book I read all month… and so far this year.

The Front RunnerThe Front Runner by Matt Bai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book – originally titled “All the Truth Is Out” – is an earnest recounting of Gary Hart’s place in history.

I read it after recently watching an earnest movie adaptation.

The movie was OK. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy the book any better than I enjoyed the movie. Earnest is not my cup of tea. I prefer Ernest, as in Hemingway. Also, I’m not a big fan of politicians.

Still, I am a big fan of journalists, and it’s hard not to be impressed by author Matt Bai, who, until recently, wrote political columns for Yahoo News.

Until recently, I was a media relations director for Yahoo’s corporate parent, Verizon.

Bai’s world and mine never collided. Even though we both received paychecks from the same company, the writers and editors who worked on Yahoo, TechCrunch, Engadget, HuffPo and other Verizon-owned media properties were never, as far as I could ever tell, interfered with by their corporate parent. In this way, Verizon was more supportive of journalists than, say, NBC News was of Ronan Farrow.

On both sides (corporate and publishing), we valued objectivity and professionalism. And humanity. Every time TechCrunch mentioned Verizon in a post, it added an editor’s note describing the company as the site’s “corporate overlord.”

This was as it should be. At one point, we in Verizon’s communications department even thought of purchasing “Corporate Overlord” t-shirts as a team-builder, but some PR issue or another diverted our attention.

All of which is to say that I do not pretend I can research, write and provide context as well as Bai and his colleagues.

I’m just a lowly reader, but this book didn’t engage or excite me.

That is, except for two redeeming scenes: the recounting of two of the author’s interactions with Gary Hart that gave me goosebumps.

I’ll write more about one scene when I turn to Nabokov. For now, take it from me, the final pages of Bai’s book are evocative and profound.

There’s a question left hanging as the book ends, delicately suspended in mid-air, described with extraordinary perspective and heartache.

Bravo, says the former corporate overlord. Bravo, I say again, for what it’s worth.

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the WorldThe Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title says it all here, especially the breathless part about “the novel that scandalized the world.”

This is basically a solid true crime story about a heartbreaking tale of the 1948 abduction of an 11-year-old girl from Camden, NJ.

I’m glad that Sarah Weinman told this tale with such empathy and thoroughness. Where the book loses me is that, throughout, the author is shocked… SHOCKED… that Vladimir Nabokov might have had some knowledge of this crime when writing “Lolita.”

Nabokov makes one parenthetical reference to Sally Horner in “Lolita,” and a thorough vetting of his estate yielded one reference to her among the thousands of legendary index cards he used for notetaking and organization. This should hardly be surprising. It’s the 1950s version of finding a link in someone’s comprehensive browsing history.

My post, "Re-reading 'Lolita' in Middle Age"
Weinman uses this slim reed to indict, and even mock (see Vladimir chasing butterflies in his funny clothes; see his beleaguered wife Vera try to protect his image like a corporate PR director) the author for crass exploitation of a sex crime.

I don’t know how much Nabokov knew about Sally Horner and, frankly, I don’t care.

I also don’t need Weinman to tell me that “Lolita” is exploitative at its core.

There was a time in my life – when I was a sophomore at Notre Dame and read the book for the first time – that I was enamored with its art.

There was, in fact, the Saturday night someone drove a group of us the few miles from South Bend, IN, to Niles, MI, where the legal drinking age was 18.

I wound up drunk at a dive bar, reciting the opening lines of “Lolita” by heart. That should tell you all you need to know about my prospects for dating during college, and how much I loved that book.

I’m insufferable that way. Still. When a friend recently asked why I had pursued another PR job rather than retire after leaving Verizon, I winced as I realized I was semi-quoting lines from “Annie Hall,” written by Farrow’s father:

Annie: The people here are wonderful. I mean, you know, they just watch movies all day.

Alvy: Yeah, and gradually you get old and die. You know it’s important to make a little effort once in a while.

I once loved... no, lurved... “Annie Hall,” but lately I can’t stomach watching Woody Allen movies. I’ve long since cleared my house of his books.

It’s because I’ve grown up.

I now regard Nabokov’s pretty words as nothing more than pedophilia played out in prostitution, threats and manipulation, as Lolita cried herself to sleep every night.


In Matt Bai’s book “The Front Runner,” the author is conversing with Gary Hart many years after his PR debacle.

Hart is reexamining his life and quoting from, of all things, the New Testament.

He can’t quite shake the implications of Jesus’ parable of the talents. Hart wonders aloud to a journalist if perhaps he hadn’t put to best use all his God-given abilities and blessings. Then he almost begins to cry.

I feel that way about myself most days. I feel that way about Nabokov too.

What if Nabokov had written a bold and insightful story about someone like Hart – or the homeless woman I just passed on the street? What great work of art could Nabokov have produced on the theme of the manipulation of power among adults, perhaps in terms of a character like Harvey Weinstein?

What if he had simply written about the intersection of life and baseball?

Extra Innings:

Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?: The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets' First YearCan't Anybody Here Play This Game?: The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets' First Year by Jimmy Breslin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I discovered this past weekend, a non-stop plane ride from New York to the heart of middle America is the exact amount of time it takes someone like me to read this short book by Jimmy Breslin, whose writing is an acquired taste.

In 1963, only five years after the American publication of “Lolita,” Breslin wrote about the intersection of life and baseball.

He wrote about the 1962 New York Mets. My sin, my soul.

Let’s-go-Mets: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of only one step to end, at three, by howling at the moon. Let’s. Go. Mets.

The Mets, in the immortal words of Breslin, are losers – just like nearly everybody else in life.

This book is about the most poetic season of the most poetic team in the most poetic of sports. It’s recommended reading, full of life’s wisdom.

These days, I enjoyed it more than “Lolita,” although not as much as I enjoyed and appreciated Ronan Farrow’s book about Harvey Weinstein. I don’t know what that says about my life. I must be a loser too.

Look at this tangle of thorns.

View all my Goodreads reviews

Monday, November 11, 2019

Veterans Day in My Hometown

My hometown -- New Milford, NJ --  held its annual Veterans Day observance on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year this morning:

- Mayor Mike Putrino read a proclamation and joined local veterans in placing memorial wreaths on the monument in front of Borough Hall.

- The New Milford High School Ensemble sang the national anthem, "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America," and a young bugler played taps.

- The Police Department stopped traffic in a moment of silence and, just down the road at the historic French cemetery, a work crew from Master Locaters ("Because What's Underneath Matters") briefly suspended their efforts.

The day also included a nod to the Bermuda Triangle and the use of a ground-penetrating radar device.

First, about the Bermuda Triangle:

The borough's memorial monument lists the names of more than two dozen residents who died in service to our country in conflicts since the Civil War. These same names also appear on street signs throughout the borough. The story of each man's life is shared in a slide show, which can be viewed at the borough's website: "The Stories Behind the Stars."

Recently, my friends at the New Milford Historic Preservation Commission found one more story to tell. It's about Navy Lt. Cmdr. Paul Thomas Smyth. Here, with permission from the Commission, is the story of his disappearance after piloting a plane over the Bermuda Triangle in February 1978:
Born in Brooklyn, Smyth grew up in New Milford and enlisted in the Navy following graduation from college. He served in Vietnam, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for a successful attack on a missile site in North Vietnam. He was also the recipient of the Air Medal, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V,” and the Meritorious Unit Commendation Ribbon. He had been selected for promotion to lieutenant commander.

On Feb. 22, 1978, Smyth, 31, and his navigator, Lt. Richard W. Leonard, were flying a KA6 attack bomber from the Naval Air Station at Oceana, Va., to the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, stationed about 100 miles offshore. The weather that day was overcast, with strong winds and high seas. According to his mother, Marjorie, his last words were, “Wait a minute. We have a problem.” The plane then lost radar and radio contact. A search of the area failed to find any trace of the plane or its occupants.

Smyth's plane went missing near the infamous “Bermuda Triangle,” a 1.5 million-square-mile area extending from Bermuda to Puerto Rico to Norfolk, Va.; however, neither the Navy nor the family attributed the disappearance to a curse.
Now, about the ground-penetrating radar:

The Historic Commission recently authorized specialists at Master Locators to scan the French burial grounds next to Borough Hall.

The town knows of at least 175 people buried there, but there aren't anywhere near that many gravestones or markers at the site. The scanning device being used today will help develop a map of actual burial locations.

Maybe someday we will even find an answer to the local mystery of what happened to the body of Bertha Reetz.

Until then, here's a link to the original Facebook post about Lt. Cmdr. Paul Smyth from the New Milford Historic Preservation Commission:

Monday, October 28, 2019

Good at Twitter vs. Bad at Twitter

Yesterday Father John Burns, a priest from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who at one time studied business marketing at the University of Notre Dame, visited the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.

In anticipation, he tweeted this:

"I don't tweet much. Not even sure this is how to use Twitter. But I will pray there for every single person who sees this tweet."

This is a remarkably good use of Twitter. It's personal; it's authentic; it was meaningful to me, enjoying Sunday morning coffee, 5,700 miles away.

We could all use someone to say a prayer for us.

So I'd say Fr. Burns is demonstrably good at Twitter -- and his tweet received over 6,000 likes.

Contrast this with actor Dave Vescio, a verified Twitter user who tweeted the following a week earlier:

This content is very clever. In fact, Vescio's tweet received over 1 million likes.

The problem is, Vescio didn't actually write this.

Instead, he repeated a tweet, word for word, that has been kicking around Twitter and other social media for several years. He added no new content and didn't credit any source. He copied it whole, then presented it as an original thought.

In Vescio's defense, perhaps this tweet is such a well-worn meme that Vescio was being ironic. He simply passed this along as an inside joke.

I don't think so, though. Irony without context isn't really irony. It's puzzling at best, and stealing at worst.

So I'd say that, despite his tweet receiving over 1 million likes, Dave Vescio is bad at Twitter.


Someone who's good at Twitter?

New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard.

Noah can be clever and ironic with the best of them. His ongoing feud with my favorite mascot, Mr. Met, is hilarious.

Just the other day Noah (he's so authentic that I feel like I know him and can call him by his first name) proved this with a tweet that was an actual inside-baseball reference.

Two other major league baseball pitchers had just engaged in an entertaining back-and-forth about their on-field gaffes: Yu Darvish waited 18 months to respond to a joke Justin Verlander had posted on Twitter at his expense, 

Thor (us friends of Noah can call him by his nickname) posted images of both tweets and commented:

"Pitcher on Pitcher crime is a scourge on our ultimate goal to defeat our true enemy. Let us unite and rise up against our real foe.....opposing batters. #pitchersunite"

Actually, besides Thor and Yu and Justin, quite a few major league baseball players are very good at Twitter. This is understandable, given the sometimes whimsical nature of the game and its extended season.

Thor wouldn't approve of this photo (credit: Joe Zwilling).
It's also particularly good Twitter practice to emulate baseball players -- and professional athletes in general -- as they adeptly ignore all the petty trolls and "fans" who routinely tweet profanity and insults while hiding behind anonymous Twitter handles that average about 25 followers. None of whom, evidently, are their mothers.

Professional athletes seem to understand that this ridiculous hatred (and jealousy) goes with the territory of being rich, talented and famous.

But here's where it crosses the line into Bad Twitter: when petty trolls and "fans" attack college athletes.

The obscene vitriol that Bad Twitter directs at non-professional 20-year-olds playing college sports is astounding, and inexcusable.

Following tweets about Notre Dame during and after Michigan soundly beat its football team Saturday night was like viewing a cesspool of humanity's lowest common denominator.

Hundreds of people took to Twitter to expose empty lives by venting at amateur athletes, younger than themselves (or, worse, their classmates), who are engaging in competition at an elite level. Why?

Few tweets were clever or added insight. Tweets that weren't profane were simply inane: "Imagine being a Notre Dame fan," taunted an anonymous someone on Twitter on Saturday night. "Lol."

Yes, just imagine: the horror of rooting for a football team made up of students from a great school that prides itself on community service and academic excellence and that has produced thousands of graduates who are making a positive difference in the world.

People like Father John Burns. Who is very good at Twitter.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

A Job Where Anything Is Possible

Imagine a PR controversy involving Mother Frances Cabrini -- a woman who is, literally, America's first saint.

It happened in New York this summer.

Just this past weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called it an "affront" that Mother Cabrini had been passed over by She Built NYC. That's the public-arts campaign that will install monuments to honor pioneering women for their extraordinary contributions to the city.

In August, the first six monuments were announced. All the women chosen deserve the honor. But Mother Cabrini -- a tireless advocate for the city's immigrants, children and the poor -- was not among those chosen.

This was controversial because Mother Cabrini was by far the most popular choice in a public vote when She Built NYC solicited input from New Yorkers about who they should first honor.


Just days after the selection of these first six monuments, I thought about this PR situation as I sat in the reception area of the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation offices in Manhattan.

In December, this organization would begin announcing up to $150 million in annual grants to under-served New Yorkers -- and it was looking to hire its first director of communications.

I wanted this job very much. As I waited to be interviewed, I considered how the Foundation's values were based on Mother Cabrini's values, and how its grants will help generations of New Yorkers of all faiths... or no faith at all.

A depiction of Mother Cabrini in stained glass stands in the reception area. She holds a pen and open book inscribed in Latin. I plugged the words into Google, and the translation was a powerful affirmation: "Anything is possible through the one who gives me strength."

During the job interview, I broached the subject of the monument snub.

In the back of my mind, I had what I thought would be a clever take on the situation.

I'd tell Msgr. Greg Mustaciuolo, the Foundation's CEO, that this wasn't a PR issue after all because Mother Cabrini would never have wanted a monument of herself. That would fly in the face of everything she stood for: selfless devotion in service to others.

Instead, Msgr. Greg smiled and offered a refreshing perspective. He noted that She Built NYC had evidently not spoken with current Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus before making its selection.

"If they had," he said, "they would have announced the building of six monuments to Mother Cabrini -- one in each borough and two in Manhattan."


That was my next-to-last interview for the job. Before the final interview, I set out on a mission to discover as much as possible about Mother Cabrini's work.

Research showed that Mother Cabrini herself was as resilient as any monument. She had twice cheated death.

In a novelization of the saint's life by Nicole Gregory, I learned that Francesca Cabrini was a sickly child, the youngest of 13. She lived in northern Italy, near the home of my paternal grandparents.

At age 7, she survived a near drowning. Late in life, after building 67 schools, hospitals and orphanages worldwide, she again avoided disaster. She had been scheduled to make a transatlantic crossing on the Titanic's maiden voyage. Instead, she decided to return New York earlier to supervise the expansion of one of her hospitals.

She even seemed to defy death after death itself. Her body was interred behind clear glass beneath the altar of the St. Frances Cabrini Shrine in upper Manhattan.

I visited this shrine last month.

I roamed the grounds before The Allegro Singers presented "A Grand Opera Concert" on a Sunday afternoon in the shrine's chapel. (I loved that the job was based in New York, where diversity of thought, culture and art is readily available and celebrated. Here, for example, is a sample of soprano Alexis Cregger singing Verdi's "Ave Maria" in Italian that day.)

Baritone Charles Gray sings a selection from Mozart's "Figaro"
Amid the beautiful music and religious imagery, I learned many things about Mother Cabrini. As it turns out, as a display next to the altar explained, her body was not incorruptible.

Human as she was, Mother Cabrini's accomplishments were super-human. My immigrant Italian grandparents, as well as extended family and my maternal Polish grandparents who arrived in New York to seek a better life, owe her a great debt of gratitude.

In 1889, New York seemed to be filled with chaos and poverty. Upon stepping into this new world, Mother Cabrini and her Missionary Sisters cared for the sick. They sheltered and educated homeless orphans and families. They also established institutions that benefitted future generations.

In 2019 and beyond, this is the spirit of the programs the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation will support.

The Foundation itself is Mother Cabrini's monument in New York.

It is designed to be deathless, existing in perpetuity to improve the well-being of vulnerable New Yorkers statewide.

So I'm excited to write that next week I will begin work as director of communications for the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation.

I'm humbled too. I know that if the work of the Foundation lives up to its namesake, anything is possible.

The altar at St. Frances Cabrini Shrine in NYC

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Day My Ancestors Took My Breath Away

On a chilly weekday in October, I set off to find my grandmother's grave.

Before his death nearly 14 years ago, Dad used to visit Calvary Cemetery quite often. Mom casually mentioned this the other day, but said she herself didn't know the exact location.

"Nonna" had died on the eve of her 100th birthday, in January 2001, when the ground was frozen. The gravesite services for Rachel Mairani Varettoni that Mom, Dad and I attended more than 18 years ago had been held in the cemetery chapel.

Setting off alone to find the grave in 2019, I drove to the modest cemetery office. It seemed deserted when I arrived, with no cars in the small parking lot.

I walked into an empty room, and a kind woman emerged from nowhere. Informing her of the date of Nonna's death, she drew a tall leather-bound book from a shelf, and carefully opened the pages where, chronologically by date of interment, the location of each gravesite had been recorded in flourished script.

She handed me a map, marking "Section 8 Lot 120B," noting that it was in the oldest part of the cemetery.

I was soon standing in front of the Mairani/Varettoni gravestone, marked: Angelo (1872-1944), Julian B. (1896-1976), Rachel (1901-2001), Rosa (1872-1969).

My ancestors took my breath away. "It's all of you," I exclaimed, bursting into tears. I lost my balance and had to steady myself on the stone. "It's all of you," I kept repeating. "It's all of you!"

Not only was Nonna in the ground at my feet, but also Nonno (my grandfather) and Bisnonna (my great-grandmother) and my great-grandfather who died years before I was born.

I loved... still love... my grandfather very much, and I had not expected to find him here. Nonno was my hero when I was a boy -- a grandfather who delighted in what would now be called dad jokes... and riddles and number puzzles.


Bisnonna, Nonno, Nonna and me -- many years ago.
This is where my story takes a macabre turn.

With attention on the gravestone's inscriptions, my mind began to race.

It had never before occurred to me that Uncle Ange was named after his father. My great-grandfather had named his firstborn son after him, just has my grandfather had done, and just as my father had done.

I also never appreciated that my great-grandmother had died soon after a memorable family visit to see her the day after Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon.

My pulse quickened further as I noticed connections in the dates.

The roundness of the numbers: Nonno, 5 years older than Nonna, dying in his 80th year; Nonna dying in her 100th.

The coincidences: both Angelo and Rosa born in the same year.

The stories: both Rosa and Rachel had outlived their husbands by exactly 25 years.

With tears in my eyes, I talked to them all for a while. I was alone in a graveyard near Route 80 in Paterson, NJ, and no one noticed or cared.

My shadow, next my ancestors' grave.
When it was time to leave, I was unfamiliar with how to navigate the local streets to get back on 80. I opened the Waze app on my iPhone and hit "Home." I drove toward River Road, but Waze directed me past what I thought might be the way to the onramp.

Pulling over, I found myself in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Elmwood Park (which would have been called East Paterson when Nonno and Nonna lived nearby). I had to chuckle. Mom, my sister and I had recently visited this same neighborhood to see the house my parents rented when I was a baby.

But, oddly, Waze was not directing me to that rental house on Kipp Avenue. Instead, it was directing me to an address on Palsa Avenue, a few blocks away.

With trepidation, I drove to the address Waze had specified. It was just a suburban house. No drama. Seemingly nothing there for me to see.

Then I noticed that the house number didn't match the address Waze displayed. The house number on Palsa Avenue was a simple three-digit number. The Waze address was this: 16-54.

Just like a gravestone inscription.


When I told this story to my wife, I mentioned that I could do a calculation on the Waze address that led to a chilling conclusion.

"I may have only 7 years to live," I said.

"Don't say that! Don't even think that!" she protested. "That's absurd."

"OK," I replied, "but there's another way to calculate those numbers, and it would mean that I've already been dead for 25 years."

"So I'm talking to a ghost?" she replied.

"Yes, and just think, what would that mean for you?"

My wife rolled her eyes (the way my grandmother often did in reaction to her husband), playfully hit me on the shoulder to see if I was for real, and turned away with an exacerbated breath.

Just like someone who had another 32 years to live.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Hope Springs Eternal at the End of the Season

Images from Citi Field, 2019
Tonight the Major League Baseball playoffs begin. Once again, without the New York Mets.

Oddly, I'm not saddened by this. Just hopeful.

I'm with Dominic Smith.

On Sunday, taking his first swing after returning from a two-month injury, he hit a walk-off three-run home run in the bottom of the 11th. It was the Mets' last game at Citi Field in 2019 and the last game of the season, an otherwise meaningless victory since the team had already been eliminated from post-season play.

With my wife beside me, we waited for his post-game interview. In imitation of Ringo Starr, Nancy had blisters on her fingers from clapping so hard all afternoon. It was a joyous scene.

Smith summed up the season this way: "We didn't get to where we wanted to go, but this is the start of something great."

I believe him too, just as I believe in Pete Alonso's guileless tears of gratitude and joy, and just as I believe in Jacob deGrom's consistent excellence.

Attending 15 Mets' home games this season, I was once again enchanted by Citi Field's relaxed, fun and friendly vibe. I want the Mets to succeed. Somehow the team makes me want to be better. Citi Field is Venus to Yankee Stadium's Mars.

I've cited Roger Angell's words here before: cheering for the Yankees' perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman. The Mets' "stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming... there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us."

I saw further evidence of this on Sunday:
  • Students from the Louis Armstrong Middle School on nearby Junction Boulevard performed the National Anthem
  • Clear-voiced Marysol Castro, one of only two female PA announcers in baseball, handled the player introductions
  • Todd Frazier (whose retro walk-up music is Sinatra's version of "Fly Me to the Moon"), in what might have been his last game as a Met, held an earnest, animated chat with two young fans at third base before the start of the game, as part of the Mets' routine of letting kids meet with players on the playing field

My wife, who is notoriously and inexplicably harassed by security personnel at other venues (and who we won't even allow enter a DMV office), was greeted warmly and cheerfully wherever we went -- from the parking lot attendant, to the jovial ticket-taker, to the bartender who carded her when we purchased wine. Her one and only suggestion for improvement? Given all the Mets' nods to quirky traditions, you should be able to buy Schaefer beer, her dad's improbable favorite and a throwback Mets sponsor, at Citi Field.

Still, when it came to baseball and as good as they were for most of the season, the Mets shot themselves in the foot several times... notably blowing a six-run lead in the bottom of the 9th after scoring five in the top half against the Washington Nationals on the day after Labor Day.

My personal Mets won-loss record was 9-6, a .600 percentage, so I'm hoping the team will offer me tickets to every home game next season. I witnessed three shutouts (two started by Steven Matz, including a rare complete game, one by deGrom); the only Mets wins ever for Hector Santiago and Chris Mazza; improbable late-inning home run heroics by Tomas Nido and Luis Guillorme; five home runs by J.D. Davis, four by Alonso and two, including the great finale, by Smith.

Below are some additional photo memories from the 2019 season.

Just wait, though, until I post about the 2020 season. I feel it in my bones. This is just the start of something great.

Meeting Mr. Met

We went to Seinfeld Night...
...and commiserated afterward at the Jackson Hole Diner

Yeah, we went on our anniversary too
With friends Paul Macchia and Matt Davis

Finally, a big thank you to my friend Joe Zwilling and his wife Cathy; they made all this possible!

Read this related post, "A Death in the Family," about the transcendent power of baseball.