Vinny Catalano has always been one of my all-time people to converse with. We met in 2007 in Folsom, California. We were both living there at the time — he a V.P of a benefits consulting firm; me the Director of HR at a community health center in Davis, California.
I remember our first conversation well, replete with an assortment of topics ranging from workplace culture to the future of Sacramento's built environment. Amid job changes and his remarriage to Kerrie Kelly (who he calls a game-changer in his life), Vinny and I have managed to stay in touch over the years.
“Michael, I feel like I’ve known you forever. It’s been like 14 or 15 years since you and I met,” he noted in our recent chat.
Just last week, we had a one-way video conversation (I say one-way because the settings on my iPad made my camera temporarily inoperable). Vinny with his infectious smile seated on the front porch of his home in East Sacramento. He apologized for any disruptions from the kitchen remodeling project being done at his home —the countertop guys and painters working away along with a yard crew circulating behind him, barely out of camera view.
Before diving into our spirited conversation about books, we did the perfunctory “what’s been going on with you before, during, and after Covid” dance. Here are Vinny’s responses to my questions in bold:
What’s new with you? Get me caught up in terms of your life.
“I’m still in the insurance and benefits business although I’ve broadened it out a bit. My work continues to evolve — the days of being able to visit an employer with a spreadsheet in hand and talk about health insurance have long passed. Now I have to be prepared to have conversations with business leaders and organizations about a broader range of advice and direction around themes like workplace culture, engagement, diversity, equity, and inclusion —themes that weren’t really a thing 3-4 years ago.”
I see from your LinkedIn profile that you are in a relatively new job since we last talked
“Yep. I made a company change 18 months ago right before the pandemic hit so that was a little problematic. But ultimately it worked out well. The company has a great culture. We have offices in Denver as well as all over the country and the world. So while I traded a big company for a slightly smaller company, it's still a big player in the market I’ve long been in.”
We used to talk often about our respective lives living in the Sacramento area at a time when the city and region were evolving. What’s it been like living there these days?
“My wife and I have this conversation a lot. We sit on our front porch overlooking our beautiful tree-lined street and ponder where we might move if we were going to move. But we can’t come up with anything, with the exception of Portugal or Italy. [Laughter].”
So are you telling me that Sacramento is probably home for the long haul?
“It appears that way. My wife and I are just not ‘let’s go to Austin or to wherever everyone else is going’ type of people. Besides, Sacramento has always had a lot going for it. I’ve always said since moving here in 1988 that Sacramento is five years away from greatness. I still say that now.”
It’s interesting to hear you mention that. Can you share more?
“Well, there has been a lot of urban construction here over the past few years, which has been exciting to observe. This is particularly true in the downtown area where The Railyards are being redeveloped with high rise homes, a soccer stadium, and a new Kaiser hospital.”
Great to hear given that these conversations were just beginning when I lived there.
“Honestly, I think Sacramento is a great place to be. I have no complaints. Even burbs like Folsom and Roseville have really taken off in recent years. There is so much going on here.”
I can only imagine what that’s doing to real estate costs
“For sure. The price of homes keeps going up as people are escaping the Bay Area. My wife Kerri who as you know is a home designer gets calls every week: ‘We are moving up from the Bay Area and just bought a house.’ These people have the cash to burn because they are selling their houses there and coming up here.”
Sounds like there are so many advantages to being in Sacramento.
“Indeed! But there is a downside —as in the case with many urban situations, no one has figured out the homeless problem. The city just doesn’t know what to do with it. There doesn’t seem to be the political will or energy or whatever to do anything about it. So the issue just lingers.”
OK, enough about life. Let’s talk now about books?
“Ha, yes! Well, now that things are opening back up
I’ve boomeranged back to visiting my local bookstore. It’s so much fun to walk in there and browse. And having just turned 60 a couple of weeks back, one of my good friends, he and his wife, set up a bookstore happy hour for August. We’ll be the only people in the bookstore at that time. Imagine that!”
From the sounds of things, the bookstore scene there is alive and hopping.
“They are. The local bookstores of course are trying to be innovative, trying to bring people back in. It’s good. Beers Books in Sacramento is one of my favorites along with Capital Books on K Street. I would say that they are among a number of independent bookstores that have hung in there pretty well during the pandemic.”
So Beers is your favorite though?
“Yes. People seem to really love that store. It’s a good place to hang out, sit, and read. They have good selections and they bring in the current stuff. In fact, there are four independent bookstores that come to mind within probably three miles of my house in East Sacramento. And I don’t mind paying a little more for a book.”
Share with us a little about the role that books have played in your life?
“I would say that I’ve always been a reader. My mom back when I was a kid would tell me that books can take me anywhere. For whatever reason, I’ve always been a book nerd. I’ve always read and experienced different genres and things in my life.”
What have you been reading of late?
“In the past few years, I’ve really embraced a lot of non-fiction books. I’ve also sprinkled in a little bit of fiction. Just finished Ken Follet’s prequel to Pillars of the Earth not long ago. But lately, I’ve just been picking up one book after another, generally in the non-fiction realm. One of the books I’m reading right now is called Meteorites. It’s just what the title implies—about rocks coming from space and what happens when they land on the earth and how people find them. It also explores differences in their chemical composition which really appeals to me as I have a degree in Chemistry.”
What other books are you delighting in at the moment?
“I stumbled upon this book called “The Gene” in Beers Books. Again it stood out for me because I used to study genetics. It was probably one of the most well-written science books I’ve ever encountered. The author Siddhartha Mukherjee is such an engaging writer. He’s a physician at Columbia University Presbyterian Hospital in New York and an oncologist. In “The Gene” he goes into the weeds a little bit scientifically but I find his discussion about the history of people who were involved in the early research on the gene really interesting. It’s a tremendous book.”
Earlier, you were mentioning your neighbor who you’ve connected with over books. Can you share more about this encounter?
“One day, I just happened to tell this neighbor friend of mine that I was reading about The Gene.” He then mentioned having read “The Emperor of All Maladies by the same author.” So we agreed to swap books — he gave me that book to read. It’s so interesting that where that book ends, “The Gene” book picks up.”
Are there any other books that have captured your interest of late?
“Walter Isaacson who has written biographies featuring people like Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Henry Kissinger has a book out called “The Code Breaker” about the scientist Jennifer Doudna. So there you go, another scientific book that I fortuitously stumbled upon.”
So I have to ask, do you prefer reading physical books or….
“[Interrupts] Hardback/paperback all the way! I want to feel a physical book in my hands. Honestly, I’ve tried reading on a Kindle as well as on an iPad and it just doesn’t have the same effect for me. I’m kinda old school like that. Reminds me of when I was a kid and would go to the reading room at the New York Public Library. And then there’s that smell. I mean, even a new book smells like a book. That’s how much of a dork I am.”
If you had to name a couple of books that have had a profound impact on your life, what would they be?
“One book that immediately comes to mind is Reformations by Carlos Eire who is at Yale University. The book is about the history of the church between 1450 and 1650. It’s a thousand pager. I picked it up in a bookstore in Berkeley.”
“As an aside, so I’m talking to my aforementioned neighbor one evening whose wife is a doctor. She told me that while as an undergraduate at Yale, she took a class with Eire, the author. How cool is that?”
That’s very cool. What else you got? It’s so interesting listening to you ramble on about books.
“The next author I actually have an autographed book from. His name is David McCullough and he was the commencement speaker at my Skidmore college graduation back in 1983. So I’ve had sort of a predilection for him.”
What can you tell me about him?
“I actually had the good pleasure of meeting him in 2011 when his book The Greater Journey came out. So I’ve read a number of his books, like “1776” and “John Adams.” When he came to speak at my college he had written “The Great Bridge.” So he's another interesting author and very engaging writer, certainly someone who has had a lot of longevity in writing.”
“And then there is the author Doris Kearns- Goodwin. Talk about someone I have a boy crush with. I first read her book “Team of Rivals” before reading “No Ordinary Time,” her biography of Roosevelt. And then I read her biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft called the “The Bully Pulpit.” There are still though a couple of books of hers I haven’t gotten to yet.”
Which of her books is your favorite?
“I would probably say Team of Rivals. That was a watershed book for me because it showed that even a man like Lincoln could be a leader and strategic thinker in bringing people together who have conflicting views. Definitely one of my top two books. That's why I was so excited to meet her.”
You met her, too? Tell more.
“I did. She came to Sacramento in October of 2020 before Covid. One of my clients, a law firm here in town, sponsored an event with her and she came on stage like a friggin tornado. She spoke like the New Yorker she is for a solid hour. And then her book was given out so I got her to sign it. It says: “To Vinny From New York.”
“After the event ended, I took a couple of my clients to dinner at an area restaurant. Loe and behold Doris comes walking into the restaurant with some of the other attorneys. And so, after a couple of glasses of wine I went over to her. She was just lovely. It was a reminder to me of how nice it is to connect with these authors as it makes the reading experience that much richer.”