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.