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: