Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Year in Churches (Predicting Better for 2021)

Thumbnail photos of churches
New Jersey churches in 2020; view them here or at @foundinnj.

One low point I witnessed in 2020 occurred while driving home from work in New York City in mid-summer.

Coach USA no longer operates a commuter bus serving my hometown in New Jersey; drivers on that route were furloughed in March.

So I used my car when allowed to physically return to the office in July -- just two days a week, and only after responding to 5 a.m. emails to testify I was COVID-free.

The low point occurred the evening Waze's iPhone navigation app displayed an alert that road kill was blocking the entrance to the lower level of the George Washington Bridge.

Road kill? In Manhattan? I was already too close to the bridge to change course. I drove with caution to the source of the congestion.

It turned out to be a living person: a man clutching a sign proclaiming his homelessness, standing in the middle of Harlem River Drive in the twilight, trying to get the attention of cars merging to the onramp.

Some Waze user had classified the beggar as "road kill" to warn other drivers.


As 2020 comes to a close, I find hope for a better future and encouragement in the hundreds of iPhone photos I have taken over the past year. Many are of family, and many are of churches.

Why churches?

I love to photograph them because there's always more to the image than the eye can see. Every Sunday, I dutifully post about another New Jersey church on Instagram using the hashtag #NJChurchEverySunday.

When 2020 started, it was a year like any other.

Choir sining in church
I posted a photo on Epiphany Sunday at St. Bonaventure's in Paterson. I had taken Mom, who was raised speaking Polish in Garfield, to hear the Chopin Society Male Choir sing Polish Christmas carols. It was the choir's 25th annual visit to the church; needless to say, there won't be a 26th this coming Sunday.

In January and February, I was fascinated by churches with a rich history that were in danger of closing. I posted on Instagram about the sale of Alpine Community Church, fire-damaged St. Mark's Episcopal Church in East Orange, and the closing of the Stanley Congregational Church in Chatham. I also posted here about the demolition of the iconic A.M.E. church in Bivalve.

This was only a foreshadowing of the images from later in March: empty church pews or pews filled only with photos of parishioners, and distant images of locked church buildings.

By the end of summer, my Google Photos folder began populating itself with highly stylized images of churches I had previously photographed. These automatic "creations" were beautiful churches in beautiful towns, such as Summit, Haworth, Montclair and Norwood.

Here, for example, is the Church of the Atonement at dusk in Tenafly.

This photo seemed even more picturesque on my phone than it had been in real life, and Google's artificial intelligence engine picked up on this mysterious quality. Google had stored the photo in its cloud, then -- as if to offer solace -- automatically stylized the image to enhance its lighting and shadows.

I admire any church that inspires Skynet; I think that bodes well for our collective fate.


Many very smart people try to predict the future... with little success.

This week I read with interest Marketing professor Scott Galloway's 2021 predictions, fully aware how wrong he has been in prior years. Two years ago he predicted that Tesla stock, then about $85 a share, would crash and burn. In 2019, the stock soared, and in 2020 it soared even higher. Each share, even after a 5-for-1 split in August, is worth more than $700 today.

Is this the lesson of 2020? That the gap between rich and poor, between the haves and the have-nots, will forever widen?

It doesn't have to be that way in 2021.

I look at the churches surrounding us and see symbols of hope for better days ahead.

Churches, even when closed, have stories to tell. They offer us more than what our eyes can see.

I predict with utter certainty they will outlast not only this pandemic, but also the rise and fall of the rich, and the vagaries of weekday traffic in New York City.

Our churches promise salvation for all, and they glorify our road kill.

NJ churches, stylized by Google in 2020; view them here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Greetings From Grounds for Sculpture: The Legacy of Seward Johnson

Daydream sculpture by Seward Johnson
"Daydream," aluminum figures 60 feet tall.

Long-time New Jersey resident and son of a Johnson & Johnson founder, J. Seward Johnson, 89, died at his second home in Florida at the start of the pandemic in March.

He died of cancer, not COVID-19. Yet to me his legacy has special meaning during the long months of social distancing and lockdown in the remainder of 2020.

Sculpture of women lounging on beach
"The Power of Suggestion," if sand were snow.
Seward was always, always creating. His work continues to delight and fascinate people today, and it will for years to come.

Seward finds wit and beauty and charm in the ordinary. In his more whimsical works, he invites us all to experience and celebrate grandeur.

A prolific sculptor, his hyper-realistic work graces many public places in and around New Jersey: Nowhere more so than at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, the sculpture park he founded in 1992.

I visited the 40-acre site last weekend, trekking through the snow like a madman to capture these images of Seward's work.


On a personal note, I am writing this while with a half dozen strangers who have gathered for an online meetup called “Just Shut Up & Write!”

It’s very therapeutic, and highly recommended.

Large sculpture of the American Gothic couple
"God Bless America," American Gothic in NJ, 14 feet high. 

Writers of all genres log in, and a host leads introductions. People often share what they will work on. Then the host sets a timer and tells everyone to “shut up and write!”

So that’s what you do — muted, cameras off — until the group reconvenes for a break. Maybe there’s another round of writing after that, but that’s the gist. has info on how to join one of the 319 Shut Up & Write! groups worldwide.

Sculptures not on current display at Grounds for Sculpture
Works by Seward Johnson in outside storage.
Back in pre-COVID times, these meeting used to be in real life, generally at coffee houses.

How quaint.

How times have changed.


All our journeys have taken twists and turns since March. Trying to stay creative has lowered lockdown stress for me.

In April, I submitted a short-story about an orange cat to a fiction contest. Our family cat had died, so the tale was horror-tinged. I also integrated more photography into blog posts and experimented with captions on Instagram, posting haiku captions of "Ghost Town" after returning to work in New York City a few days each week in the summer.

In my hometown in New Jersey, the New Milford Library used personal Pinterest and Facebook posts in a repository of local stories about the pandemic and lockdown. Anna, the librarian, worked with Janet, a local writer and teacher, to start a virtual photo-journaling group.

We met weekly via Zoom in the summer and fall, taking part in prompted writing exercises with neighbors and local high school students. Journalist Laura Holson joined one great session to talk about creativity. Other sessions inspired new poetry.

Tree views of a Seward Johnson sculpture
Views of "The Awakening," a giant embed in earth.

Meanwhile, each Saturday morning I've joined a webcast hosted by former New York Times photo editor Steffen Kaplan. His "Spin It Social Hour" is an entertaining and informative conversation with photography pros, featuring and promoting their work.

So thank you to Steffen, Laura, Anna, Janet, Suzanne (who organized this weekend's Black Glass Gallery visit to Grounds for Sculpture), to the sympathetic strangers writing with me online right now, and to all the authors, artists and photographers who have helped me through 2020.

I believe Seward Johnson's advice to all of us would be this:

"Life is too short. Try to leave something of lasting value to others. Just shut up and create."

Long and close view of a statue of two lovers
From afar, these two look very real!

Two sculptures by Seward Johnson
I pulled the mask above the jogger's nose
(don't tell anyone);
also, I love the painter's optimistic view of what he sees!

Oversized sculpture of two women on a park bench
"Crossing Paths"; I inserted myself for scale.


Group photo of photographers in front of a statue
Photo by the great Mickey Sica.
Black Glass Gallery photographers at Grouds for Sculpture, 12/20;
I'm second from left, my right hand in imitation
of "Redon's Fantasy of Venus" by Seward Johnson.

Find higher-res versions of these photos from Grounds for Sculpture in this Google Photos folder.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Last Month in New York, in Photo Haiku

New York images.

November 2020.

Captions in haiku.

For expanded captions, see my Instagram feed.

Cars along the FDR, Queensboro Bridge in background

City lights at dusk.

The Queensboro Bridge in pearls.

Cars race without care.

Christmas tree, lighted, overlooking East River

Solitary tree,

dreaming of a white Christmas.

Irving Berlin's house.

Lego store window with diorama of Rockefeller Center

Toy diorama.

Fake Rockefeller Center,

inside the real thing.

Statue in lobby of 280 Park Avenue

Fish out of water.

Whimsy turns the dim world pink.

Park Avenue art.

Tall buildings, street POV

Buildings watch me walk.

I look up and catch their stare.

Nosy, jealous glass.

Rockefeller Center, before the tree lighting

Unlit Christmas tree,

an emperor without clothes.

Poised, and soon to shine.

View from the Belden Point pier, City Island

City Island's point,

like nowhere else in New York.

Cape Cod in The Bronx.

Nighttime view of Manhattan's East Side

My view leaving work.

Bright lights aligned in columns.

Windows filled with life.

Empty park at night

Two ghosts playing chess.

Imaginary dogs howl.

Neither leave a trace.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

65 Years Ago Today - Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!

Sacred Heart: 1955 on top, 2018 on bottom.

At 11:30 this morning, Mom called my uncle. He was big brother to my late Dad (also named Bob), and he’s been a priest since June 1955.

“Do you know what you were doing exactly 65 years ago?” Mom asked.

Before my uncle could respond to the trick question, she answered: “I was walking down the aisle at the cathedral, and you were about to marry Bob and me!”

I visited Mom just as she got off the phone, and she was so exited to tell me again about her wedding, 65 years ago on Thanksgiving, this very day.

In September 1955, Dad had returned from Navy duty overseas, stationed in San Diego. He and Mom had wanted to wait until his brother was ordained before announcing their engagement, which they did when Dad returned to New Jersey to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in October. Then, wasting no time, they married in November.

Sacred Heart framed by cherry blossoms, 2019.

Mom wanted everything to be perfect. The night before her wedding, she prayed a rosary and placed the beads on a windowsill in her bedroom. She had heard this would guarantee good luck and good weather. It turned out to be a windy day — not perfect weather — but otherwise Mom considered herself perfectly lucky.

My uncle’s friend was choir director at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, so he arranged the venue: the main altar at what is still the most beautiful, majestic church in the state. They needed two red carpets to cover the distance down the long center aisle. Mom’s immigrant Polish parents had never been in a limo before and had never seen the cathedral before, and it seemed their daughter was living an American fairy tale.

65 years ago today, at the Clifton Casino.

After the ceremony and reception (at Clifton Casino, which no longer exists), Mom and Dad returned to their newly rented, unfurnished second-floor apartment in a house on Kipp Avenue in what was then East Paterson (now Elmwood Park). They sat on the floor and gathered their gift money, and decided to buy a rug and furniture later that week in Passaic.

They never went on a honeymoon. Dad died a month before their 50th wedding anniversary. Life goes on.

Earlier this morning, Mom was calling other senior citizens around her hometown to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving, in case they were lonely.

Mom’s not lonely. Her memories bring her joy, and she dreams about Dad all the time.

They married exactly 65 years ago today, and the groom would be glad to know his bride is living happily ever after.

Mom showed me the Kipp Avenue house in 2019;
right, us today.

Monday, November 23, 2020

My Virtual Life, 2020

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

My Life on Instagram: November 2020, So Far

Nov. 16 - Lunchtime walk in New York City.
The Rockefeller Center tree arrival; Saks 5th Ave. windows.

My life in Instagram posts:


Nov. 5 - I wrote a poem.

And took a COVID-19 test (results: negative).


Nov. 6 - I recalled the light I saw at the end of the tunnel.


Nov. 8 - I saw a breathtaking statue along the Hudson River in Piermont.


Nov. 10 - I visited Mom in Totowa.


Nov. 11 - I took a walk across the Tappan Zee Bridge.


Nov. 14 - I took a walk around my hometown.


Nov. 18 - I participated in a virtual wine-tasting. Via Zoom. Very 2020.


So you see, Bob, you have lived a wonderful life.