On unplugging and plugging in: Austin Kleon’s ‘Keep Going’

Cover of Austin Kleon's new book, Keep Going
For many people, Austin Kleon’s “Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad” could be the right book with the right message at the right time.
Much like in his first bestseller, “Steal Like An Artist,” Kleon presents a fast and enjoyable read that is a thought-provoking checklist inspired by great creative minds through his structured lens. Some of his suggestions seem so simple as to be self-evident, but he’s pushing back against a world where we too often eschew simplicity for complicated, vexing and unhealthy obsessions, so this comes across like a breath of fresh air.
Speaking of which, one of my favorite chapters here is titled “Demons Hate Fresh Air.” Kleon relates how he, his wife and two sons (in a double stroller) go for a three-mile walk almost every day which is “often painful, sometimes sublime, but it’s absolutely essential to our day.”
The walk is “where ideas are born and books are edited” and “really a magical cure for people who want to think straight.” He even cites the Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic’s 2300+ year old advice of “solvitur ambulando,” or “it is solved by walking.”
There’s a reason such wisdom remains for so long: I’ve found walking and running to be two marvelous cures for everything from small phrasing conundrums to writer’s block. Whole blog entries, songs, poems or parts of book chapters tumble from my head while out for a nice walk (though I really should get better at preserving them before I forget). Without even the benefit of fresh air, when I’m stuck for a headline or lead to a story, walking up a flight of stairs to the third-floor bathroom at work almost always results in a breakthrough.
Walking, Kleon adds, “is great for releasing our inner demons, but maybe even more important, walking is great for battling our outer demons.”
The people who want to control us through fear and misinformation — the corporations, marketers, politicians — want us to be plugged into our phones or watching TV, because then they can sell us their vision of the world. If we do not get outside, if we do not take a walk out in the fresh air, we do not see our everyday world for what it really is, and we have no vision of our own with which to combat misinformation.
This battle with a digital world’s negative effects surfaces throughout the book. In the chapter “Build A Bliss Station,” he speaks of the importance of a place and/or time to make the point of disconnecting. I’m one of those who finds early hours ideal for creative work, and Kleon wonders how many people get sidetracked by the often soul-crushing habit of checking the news first thing in the morning. “There’s almost nothing in the news that any of us need to read in the first hour of the day,” Kleon writes. “When you reach for your phone or your laptop upon waking, you’re immediately inviting anxiety and chaos into your life.”
In the chapter “The Ordinary + Extra Attention = The Extraordinary,” he reminds us: “Pay attention to what you pay attention to. … Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you.” Think about the people you know whose attention is always wrapped up in political arguments on the Internet — where nobody changes their minds — and how they could use that time more wisely.
Back to the “Bliss Station” chapter again, that also wonderfully lays out one of my new favorites: JOMO, or the Joy Of Missing Out. Social media helps foment marketers’ covetous construct of FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out), where we look at everybody’s highlight reels on social media and think they’re having more fun than we are (which is not necessarily true). Kleon cites a rejoinder from writer Anil Dash: “There can be, and should be, a blissful, serene enjoyment in knowing, and celebrating, that there are folks out there having the time of their life at something that you might have loved to do, but are simply skipping.”
Kleon’s book is really a nice way of re-evaluating our priorities, habits and processes as much as it is a book about creativity. You can certainly miss out on this book — Kleon would support that, in theory — but it is also quite capable of bringing its share of joy.

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“Try This At Home”: A fine book and call to action

“I do believe that everyone with any small amount of musical ability has something good to say inside them. At the very least, they have the right to try.”
— Frank Turner, “Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting”

Photo of Frank Turner's "Try This At Home" songwriting book atop a dobro guitarNot everybody knows that I have a long, albeit hidden, track record as a songwriter. I’ve been writing songs since before high school, easily dozens of them. Styles range from punk and pop (especially in my teen years) to rock’n’roll and alternative (whatever that means) for my adult life, and most recently folk and blues.

Despite this catalog, I’ve never, ever played one of my own songs for an audience. Many of them probably shouldn’t be because they’re just not good (my earliest ones influenced by U2 and INXS and The Alarm would be dreadfully dated now, at best). Some of them are too personal to let out of the bottle. Too many of them are unfinished. But a handful might be passable at an open mic night.

This backstory, to say nothing of my admiration of his music and writings, dovetailed nicely into buying Frank Turner’s latest book, “Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting.” In addition to having several of his records, I also own his entertaining autobiography, “The Road Beneath My Feet.” In his books as in his singing, Frank is brutally honest, charmingly self-effacing and always very engaging.

The book is not exactly what you’d find on the syllabus of a songwriting class in a conservatory. Frank cusses a lot, draws on the lessons of poor behavior and decisions on his part, and doesn’t really get too technical. “Songwriting is an art and a craft,” he notes in the book’s introduction. “While the art part remains appropriately mystical and out of reach, the latter craft side of it can be examined, dissected, practiced and ultimately taught,” even as he next admits he’s not much trained in it.

And so, Frank takes readers through deep dives into the inspiration, structure and timelines of around three dozen songs, from tales of love lost and found to politics to the passing of Vaudeville. For whatever one might think of his music, Frank’s knowledge of world history, musical traditions and the creative process are all first-rate, and you’ll learn something about many different topics in these pages. He’s also one of the best showmen I’ve ever seen, expert at drawing his audiences into the song through call-and-response, singalongs and all kinds of interaction. Not surprisingly, his books similarly draw a reader in close.

A very valuable lesson from this book has been the difficulty for even the best writers of bringing a song from idea to lyrics to arrangement and then a lengthy fine-tuning process. One of my weaknesses in songwriting has been the initial excitement of a piece fading to the point I just want to get it done and then just leaving it. Frank often returns to songs he knows have potential to try to make them better, often trying again and again.

He also talks considerably about having a metaphorical treasure trunk of ideas. For him it’s notepads of everything from a clever turn of phrase to fragments of a tune to a song that he’s written but doesn’t feel complete. He does similar things with chords and arrangements that he later pieces together for finished tracks. It’s advice I give to my students working on ads and other creative projects — generate a bunch of ideas, because you never know if you’ll need them — but I’m bad at in my own life.

If you’re a Frank Turner fan, this is a must-have, obviously. If you’re interested in songwriting and like his style, this could also be useful. I’ve actually started writing pieces of songs — eschewing my normal habit of just writing a song to be done with it and moving on — so it’s already influencing my musical process.

So it’s truth in advertising: If you read this book about trying it at home, there’s a fair chance you actually will.

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Losing a center that reflects a community heritage

St. Stephen's Church

St. Stephen’s Church on Niagara Street has a special meaning for a place I haven’t been in much. It’s something I often pass while running, but moreover respect as the last representative of the once mainly Polish neighborhood where I live. But with word coming that it’s on a path toward closing with the consolidation of Catholic churches in Oswego, I feel like our neighborhood — a whole heritage, really — is losing something.

As the last vestige of the ethnicity that settled my neighborhood, it kept some of that alive through a very popular Polish festival where people could order pierogies and golabkis, chat with neighbors and play various games. But the food was the star: Lines would run out the door just for people who preordered — if you wanted to get some fresh, the wait was even longer.

My neighborhood used to feature Polish bakeries and butcher shops long before supermarkets, let alone chain supermarkets, were so prevalent. But all this actually goes back to a bygone era that still plays out, nearly imperceptibly, in our Port City.

Oswego thrived in the mid-19th century, as ships carrying many of the goods heading inland to build the growing United States came into the harbor. Immigrants came to help handle those goods and all the industry that came with being, at the time, the second-fastest-growing city in the state.

The 19th century boomtown saw many Irish, Italian, Polish, German and other immigrants find homes in the Port City. Like in many (especially bigger) cities, they set up their own neighborhoods. The heart of those neighborhoods were often the congregations and the churches, so you eventually had places like St. Mary’s for Irish families, St. Joseph’s for Italian families and St. Stephen’s for Polish families. Neighborhood taverns, eateries and shops sprung up around them. You can still see this pattern in the neighborhood bars so many know in Oswego; the melting pot of the city now means most of them aren’t affiliated with an ethnicity so much as a neighborhood, profession or other taste.

Until now, churches also served as reminders of these neighborhood roots. But now St. Paul’s on the east side will remain as the home of Oswego’s Catholic population. Various demographics and social movements reduced the regular attendees to local Catholic churches, and some had closed previously. The numbers tell the story: In 1910, the Oswego area had 12,772 parishioners; but an October 2018 survey found 1,038 attending masses. It no longer made sense financially or logistically to do anything but consolidate.

But many people will miss their places of worship and social centers. I feel a sense of loss as a social historian, but it’s nothing compared to the people who were married there, baptized on site, had their communions or worshipped there regularly.

But as the church starts looking for some other purpose or purchaser, St. Stephen’s is still a beautiful building that will retain some functions — along with a legacy to the neighborhood. I’ve seen it packed for their festival and, for their recent Easter Mass, cars lined the streets and lots around it. That St. John’s, also in my neighborhood, has become Amnesty Crossfit while its additional buildings are now professional offices, living space and commercial storage, gives hope that the graceful edifice may find new life.

Shrine and memorial near St. Stephen's Church

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Running to where the sidewalks end

Runner standing in sidewalkOne interesting challenge of finding different running routes is that my little southwest corner of the city is The Land Where The Sidewalks End.

My house sits at the top of what was once known as “[derogatory nickname for a Polish person] Hill,” and is one of the oldest in the neighborhood. Most of the houses south didn’t appear until the 20th century, and some not until after World War II. Somewhere in there, the city decided residential streets didn’t necessarily need sidewalks. So where you run the new streets around the Shapiro Park neighborhood, named for folks like Eisenhower and Kennedy and Lincoln, you’re either in somebody’s lawn or the road.

With one exception: my road, West Fifth, a thoroughfare that continues long after Second through Fourth and Sixth and everything else disappears. How far, exactly, do the sidewalks go on West Fifth?

Challenge accepted.

So southward ho, leaving my familiar neighborhood to where the houses span further apart and give way to cul-de-sac streets with names like Ash and Lee and Darling. Where Windsong Lane scurries past Heather Way into Lilac Lane. The Fragrance District, one could call it.

The sidewalk of West Fifth finally ends at Mark Fitzgibbons Drive, just before railroad tracks, Eagle Beverage and the city line, but a new sidewalk thrusts westward toward Oswego Middle School. Fitzgibbons takes you past the school and circles up into Murray Street, which becomes a north-south artery of a nouveau riche neighborhood.

My new route passes the land of gates and giant goldfish ponds and gigantic gardens. Of palatial porches and garages the size of a house. “Country living with city convenience” is the code I learned as the real estate editor for The Palladium-Times. Sidewalks connecting a lot of neighbors who would have no intentions of using them. But for kids walking from the middle school and us weird running types, they are our red carpet.

As Murray Street stretches toward my neighborhood, the middle-class houses return and I realize this is the longest I’ve run without stopping since … I don’t even remember. Past Gerritt and a left onto the familiar Ellen Street and I stretch out my stride a bit for the last two blocks (one of which seems way longer than I remember). I feel the runner’s high making everything blissful as I close the loop with a left onto West Fifth and onto my own modest porch.

I’ve now become a wearer of one of those fitness watch/tracker things, and it tells me I did a non-stop 2.4 miles at a bit more than 10 minutes per mile. That’s what I was running way back when I was actually in shape and way younger! My best run in a decade, maybe more.

Plus, I found both where the sidewalk ends and the beginning of a good new route.

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Running on: sights, sounds, second winds

Post-run photo of legs in front of the first blooms of a magnolia
This morning brought by far the longest run since I returned to the sport from years away, but also a reminder that the sights and sounds and opportunity to reflect are more important than the distance and pace.
I live far enough south in Oswego that I haven’t gone anywhere near the main street of Route 104/Bridge Street (my roots in this town) in any of my routes, and only once to Utica Street, the second-biggest east-west thoroughfare. But today I set a goal to get all the way across those to the northern border of our city, which happens to be Lake Ontario, and Breitbeck Park.
The run took me past St. Stephen’s Church, the stalwart sanctuary of my Polish neighborhood, filled with folks getting the Good News. Each gathering anywhere is truly unique, as all these people under the same roof will only happen today, hearing and sharing the same things, before going their various paths in life.
I wove west to Liberty Street, and my goal was to not walk before Utica Street, all good, then I told myself the next block, and the next, and then to keep running past Bridge Street, which was made even easier by light traffic. Ideally, I would have run all the way to Breitbeck Park, but after I convinced myself to get another block past Cayuga Street and then to Seneca Street, I knew my legs needed a break. Walked a block, then back at it to Breitbeck Park.
To those not familiar with Breitbeck Park, it’s really the jewel of Oswego parks, opening up into a magnificent view of Lake Ontario, the Oswego Harbor, our signature lighthouse and beyond. It’s one of the things that convinced me to move to Oswego. It’s also an amazing place for people watching.
Not too many people on this peaceful Sunday, but enough. A young couple strode the lakeside walk below. She paused to take pictures on her cellphone of the lake and trees — and not a single selfie! She also handed her purse to the gentleman, who didn’t complain and took it like a champ, fulfilling an important part of any mating ritual.
In the park, a parent and child played with a large yellow dog. One day the child will grow up and they will think back to these Sundays in the park as good times. Rejoice!
I took a break from running (feeling lazy for it), walking down to the lake trail and into Wright’s Landing. Seven boats were in slips this early in the season, and each of those boats is something special, the result of a lot of work and savings to buy, and to maintain. Those are seven dreams come true for people or families. And I thought about my late grandfather, our main father figure, born 110 years ago this month, and how he built a boat in his retirement years.
The boat was called, appropriately, Second Wind. Running, and life in general, is about second or third or tenth winds, and on a day celebrating resurrection, hard to think of a better metaphor.
My minimum goal was to run from there to West Park, and I felt good enough to keep running, then past services at the Church of the Resurrection and St. Mary’s Church. Next goal was Bridge Street, then the next block, then the next then across Utica Street. Then a walk, then run, then one more walked block then up the hill to home.
In all, I was out for more than an hour and ran about 3.5 miles — longer than a 5K. I realize a sizable caveat exists in the amount of walking in there too. But all around blooms and buds were showing, spring rising majestically. I heard kids in backyards hunting for Easter eggs, and laughter and happiness.
May this Easter Sunday, bring you joy, reflection and renewal, as well as second winds and beyond.

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On the road again

Looking down the author's body: windbreaker, loggings, running shoesTwo things that are true about habits:
– They’re easy to get into.
– Once you get out of them, they’re harder to get back into.

I don’t remember the last time I went running. It’s probably been years. Even longer since I did a 5K. I’ve had to chase my child around for sporadic intervals, but it’s not the same. The process of getting my act together and actually going running? That’s a habit I’ve been overdue of starting again.

I’ve always had an excuse. I can’t because this knee is sore. I can’t because my sinuses hurt. I can’t because it’s too cold. Or too warm. Or too wet. Or too dry. Or, well, pick a reason and I’ve probably used it.

It’s so easy to can’t ourselves out of things. Once we start down that path, we’re easily can’ted out of habits entirely. If they’re bad habits, this is a good thing. But if they’re positive habits, one can’t after another creates a whole mountain of can’ts that loom in front of us like a real, no longer metaphorical, object.

But today I decided I’d done enough can’ting. The sun was shining, the snow is mostly gone and spring seems to be (maybe/sorta/kinda) close at hand. I’ve seen so many other friends ramping up for road race seasons, preparing for 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, full marathons and the like. It’s been encouragement — thank you all.

I’ve seen enough people who can to tell me it was time to can the can’ts.

My first run was nothing special. From my house to Shapiro Park, a quick walk around the outer half, then a run back home. All at an easy pace, even if it felt harder than it should.

Three things I know about getting back on the running game.

– It won’t look good. People might dream of looking like a sleek animal when they run. A gazelle. A cheetah. A fox. I look more like a fish that’s flopped out on the land and sprouted wiry limbs. But that’s OK. I’m not trying to impress anybody as much as I’m trying to knock down my own barriers.

– It won’t be easy. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. Going home and sitting on the sofa is easy. Dressing in leggings and a windbreaker and sneakers, stretching, getting mentally prepared and then simply trusting an old, creaky body? Not easy. But getting a body in motion is the first step.

– It’s going to hurt. More muscles than I remember having in my legs are in pain right now. My breathing isn’t where it should be, so my lungs are burning. At some point, my back will chime in as well. They’ll feel better in a day or two.

Look, my running exploits aren’t going to impress anybody. I don’t expect any trophies in my future. This isn’t about medals, it’s about mettle. It’s about kicking the can’ts to the curb by knowing that I can.

One run down, and I just can’t wait to get on the road again.

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Spontaneity + the arts = a magical combination

The spontaneous creation of the arts is one of my favorite things in the world. From an improv comedy show to a musical jam session to street artists, the idea of creating and collaborating in the moment is an amazing thing. That’s why I was so impressed when it happened right in front of me at the Sterling Cidery on St. Patrick’s Day.

My kid and I were visiting Fair Haven, my adopted hometown away from home, and popped into the cidery, under new owners and with a permit for the day. People clearly miss the place and can’t wait for it to fully reopen, as it was packed before 2 p.m. A nice combo led by Larry Kyle played in the room just off of the main serving area. We sashayed into a back room (or “lounge,” as I like to call it) where Arius passed the time playing with Scrabble cards and inventing rules of a game involving plastic mice that none of us could figure out what the real rules might be.

Then things got interesting. A lone guitarist came into the back room to tune up. Then Bob, father/father-in-law of the cidery’s founding owners, came back with his guitar and the two started jamming. Then a third musician joined them, and soon enough you had singalongs and more and more people filling up chairs for this completely unplanned performance.

It was really cool although perhaps a bit less enjoyable if you’re a 6-year-old who was looking for some quiet while he made up rules for a game with plastic mice. So we bid our adieu, making more room for the increasing audience.

Three musicians play as other sit around

An spontaneous performance in an unplanned venue lasted several hours with a rotating cast of musicians.

I went back to the cidery that evening by myself and, to my surprise, musicians were still playing in the back room. And musicians were still performing in the original performance space. The new owners and I found it really cool that each room with its acoustic musicians and spontaneous set lists were distinct and not audible to each other, yet also very organic creating the scenes in front of their own audiences.

And that’s the magnificent thing about the arts: Performances and presentations aren’t set. Even the most seemingly structured are not: You can follow a band for 10 concerts in 10 different cities and you’ll see something different every time. Now take this formula with a revolving cast of musicians with no set list and very little forethought in what they’re playing. And then add a second unexpected performance space, where musicians rotate between their ad hoc bandmates, and what do you have?

Pure magic. You don’t need leprechauns or even St. Patrick’s day for that to happen, and it may well be better than any pot of gold.

Four musicians play

Larry (O’)Kyle performing in the main musical space of the Sterling Cidery with friends, before he went to play some more in the new backroom performance area.

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