Ready for the closeup, while taking the long view

Mayor Billy Barlow speaks at Water Street Pocket Park grand opening

A warm sun illuminated the bricks — both those more than 150 years old and those placed in the past few weeks. A crowd of everyday people and business owners and officials talked and shared smiles. The news crews pointed their attention toward a small stage. A local rock band stood at the ready. Oswego was ready for its time to shine.

Earlier this week, an official ribbon-cutting and celebration of the new Water Street Square pocket park heralded the progress the Port City has made with the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant from the state, a lot of brilliant planning and plenty of minds and hands and hearts coming together to bring imagination to life. Billy Barlow, the mayor in his late 20s who is running unopposed for election this year, gave a short and optimistic speech congratulating everybody and cheering the community’s cooperation, the traditional ribbon cutting unfolded and then 3 Of A Kind (plus fourth member Johnny Luber) played some rock favorites. 

It was Oswego and yet it was also unlike the Oswego I had known for years.

When I moved to Oswego, I found a sizable quotient of curmudgeonry, generally older folks talking about some “good old days” of Oswego yet not particularly doing anything positive to make it better (political will in those days often had an awful lot to do with personal interests). Letters to the editor often included the sentence “Wake up, Oswego!” warning about horrible things like progress and new ideas and not being stuck in the past. In truth, they were sleepwalking in a haze of memories, wanting to pull Oswego back to that real or imagined past instead of looking for a better future.

The DRI funding woke up the community in a different way. Sure, some people immediately fixated on the waterpark which seemed like a curiosity, but far more important were the proposals inviting people to live in our historic downtown. I lived downtown my first years here and, despite not having much to spend, had more than my fair share of dinners, pizza and beverages in the heart of the city. When the lofts in the Browne-Davis building opened, young professionals responded (a waiting list was almost immediate) and kept much of their business downtown. Many of the renovations and mixed-use construction continue to swell the downtown population.

As people sung and swayed and held their beers aloft with 3 Of A Kind (+1) on a night Barlow waived the open container law, you could still see For Sale and For Rent signs around you, but you also knew whomever took those opportunities would see a more vibrant scene and willing audience. It’s no exaggeration that everybody I talked to that night was excited and happy for progress. It’s something I discussed repeatedly during New Faculty and Staff Orientation, and something our newest employees had already noticed.

While we await more progress for the next 150 days, and the next 150 weeks, and ponder its legacy for the next 150 years, the sunshine and warmth are both physical and palpable, as Oswego steps up for its time to shine.

A quartet plays rock music for a crowd in Water Street Square

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Every drawer is a junk drawer: Dealing with physical and emotional clutter

Junk drawer full of cables, cards, tickets, no longer working watches and more

Sometimes it feels like every drawer is a junk drawer.

In the past week I’ve had to look for a couple of things I put in Some Important Place So I’ll Remember Where They Are, but I could not figure which place. The small binoculars which might have been nice for the Hootie and The Blowfish show were in none of the expected drawers, hanging thingies, nooks or crannies. A copy of my Delta Dental card finally appeared in about the eighth Place I Put Important Cards I Don’t Keep In My Wallet. 

I found plenty of other things — like cards and notes with sentimental value — but also business cards for people who changed jobs and a lot of cards that had expired. Yet I didn’t throw out very many. Why? I don’t need a card for somebody who hasn’t worked there in a decade, or my AAA card that expired years ago. Yet, there they still sit in their various places.

Maybe it’s because I’m afraid of starting. Sure, it’s easy to discard that hair appointment card. And the expired cards, cut up or something, are a no-brainer. But after that, my decision-making can be oddly paralyzed.

Yes, she’s not working at that place any more, but I also remember getting that card, the wide smile when she handed it over, the moment of connection. Yes, I know he’s not at that office any more, but I remember how proud he was when he got that job.

The problem is that my junk drawers are not a physical manifestation so much as an emotional one.

I hang onto things because I hang onto moments, especially happy ones. I am a hoarder of memories — times I forget until I come across a business card, a momento, a small gift that I’ve never used yet cherish because of the act of giving.

Throw in the junk drawers full of instructions I’ll never read, parts and pieces I think I’ll need (but probably never will), cables to I’m not even sure what, tickets to games and shows, watches that stopped working, baby/toddler toys/things no longer of interest to a 6 year old and pretty much every holiday card, birthday card and invitation I’ve received since moving into my house nearly 18 years ago, and it’s drawer upon drawer of generally needless stuff.

I’m very aware of the problems of physical and emotional clutter, and how we should part with things that no longer bring us joy. But many of these objects remain out of fear of forgetting some person or some time, of regret that I didn’t do more with somebody or something.

It’s pretty clear at some point I just need to block off a day and clear out the clutter. It will feel better in more than one sense, but a little sad as well. But it will be a way to move forward. And maybe both piece of mind and my binoculars will even come into view.

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PorchFest: Keeping good vibrations going through a community

The New Snip City bluegrass band plays in a yard surrounded by music fansWhile the concept of PorchFests is fairly new up here on Lake Ontario — Fair Haven just had its third annual, Oswego will have its fifth in September — it’s a really wonderful addition to local calendars. It’s one of the more equitable music festivals imaginable; you not only get to hang out with your friends and neighbors, but you get to see your friends and neighbors perform. Or if you’re really lucky, you even get to perform with new friends and neighbors.

These festivals feel like an antidote to the ills of the modern world. People physically talk to and interact with each other in real life! Music plays, but not from an electronic device. What a concept. Generally if I saw a cellphone out, it was because somebody was taking pictures or a video of a performer, and the person taking it would have a large smile on their face. This wasn’t the social media “I have to get this to show how awesome I am” game; it was the “I have to get this to show how awesome these people are” game.

At Fair Haven’s PorchFest, you had everything from solo singer-songwriters to bluegrass bands to country tunesmiths to theatrical collectives to a ukulele orchestra to horns from the Alps. If you wanted just about any type of music, you could find it, or let it find you as you strolled the village’s streets. Most of the performers were from Central New York or had family in the area, with a few folks from further afield just adding to the menu.

About the only challenge is that there’s no way you can see everybody you want. Or you can see many acts by not staying for a whole set. Achieving a balance can manifest in other ways; if you were enjoying the excellent bluegrass of New Snip City on Richmond Avenue, between songs you could hear the lush high lonesome sounds of Emalee Herrington from down the road, and vice versa. But that’s unavoidable given the event’s geographic and temporal boundaries.

The band Be Kind, Rewind performs '90s rock on a front lawnIn terms of everything else, especially the vibe and interaction, an A+ to the organizers and players on what turned out to be a beautiful day in Fair Haven. At the south end of Platt Street, a band called Be Kind Rewind playing ‘90s rock got a pair of unexpected encores. They had to dig back to songs they hadn’t played in a while, and if their performance wasn’t perfect because of any rustiness, the crowd didn’t mind and just sang, clapped and danced along. That’s how music should be.

And nothing symbolizes this day of equitable treatment of all things musical like the closing jam. To play in it, all you do is show up with an instrument and take a chair around a circle. I brought my acoustic bass and happily joined a group of musicians that were all better than me, but I was welcomed as a friend. When one of the performers I’d seen on a porch earlier leaned over to ask me about chord progressions for an unfamiliar song, it made me feel like somebody. Like I was truly, in every way, a part of the festival.


In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” a collection of epitaphs for a fictional town, “Fiddler Jones” is a rare happy poem. And why not, when it’s about playing music. It reminds me of the spirit of community, of barn dances brought out into the streets, this festival embodies. It begins:

“The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.”

One of the best descriptions of the musical itch I’ve ever read. In Fair Haven on Sunday, we all kept that vibration going, whether playing or clapping or singing along. The poem’s conclusion:

“I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.”

Listening to music, playing music and being in the moment — these are among the good things in life. If there’s a regret after going to a PorchFest, it’s that you couldn’t see all the bands you wanted to. But there’s always another PorchFest somewhere else or next year to keep the good vibrations going.

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Oswego shines: less a diamond in the rough, more just a gem

Water Street Square, a new pocket park in downtown Oswego

I spent a good portion of yesterday walking around Oswego during Harborfest and — at the risk of sounding like a homer — I don’t think the city has ever looked more beautiful. And that’s despite Harborfest being a time that can put stress on its neighborhoods.

Terry Prior, as good of a public historian as I’d ever met, said that during the Port City’s shipping heyday, the west side neighborhood nearest the lake, down the hill from around West Fifth to the river, was known as “The Flats.” It was where sailors could find everything they were looking for: women, fights, intoxicants and related items, or some combination. And for decades after, despite the lack of sailors and other “services” that supported them, it would not be unfair to say these neighborhoods still could look a little rough.

I took a turn on West Second from Lake Street, going through a stretch where I previously may have seen run-down houses, wild and unruly lawns, discarded items and refuse. Instead I saw renovated and new structures, neat lawns and hardly any litter. On one side, construction for the new mixed-use buildings rose toward completion, while on the other Skip’s Fish Fry had out a shiny and neat food truck. Sure, I passed a few parties and the occasional drunk, but it most certainly wouldn’t be a walk I’d fear making with a six year old.

Around town, I saw so much improved curb appeal, construction and renovation, new businesses. Water Street Square, the brand new pocket park, looked ready to open and cast an attractive and welcoming presence. The new brickwork in the sidewalks and the remade storefronts are so much more pedestrian-pleasing and inviting. I learned the city has gained a new gaming store called Convergence (bravo for the ascendance of nerd culture!). And the festgoers themselves, local and visitors alike, were the most diverse I’ve ever seen in every measure.

Much of the credit can go to groups like the Oswego Renaissance Association, which has supported with money and positivity the rebuilding of neighborhoods across town. The $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grants are evident in the new, rehabilitating and rising buildings. Mayor Billy Barlow has made improving neighborhoods, and getting more people to want to live and work downtown, priorities and it seems to be working.

Look, I know Oswego is far from perfect. Some people could use more tolerance, more empathy, more understanding. You can find plenty of areas for improvement, such as the zombie properties that still cast a blight over too many neighborhoods. Pockets of crime and drugs still exist.

But on the whole, I agree with what Bill Reilly of River’s End Bookstore said during a Friday visit: He’d never seen so much activity in Oswego before — and he wasn’t talking about Harborfest. Bill was talking about year-round, of touches large and small, immediate and ongoing. As I walked along the West First Street business district after the fireworks, I noticed strings of lights illuminating the heart of downtown. They were both quaint and sophisticated, in the best senses of those words. I smiled and, thinking of everything else I passed that day, realized I’ve never been more proud to call Oswego my home.

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Appreciating moments that are less than picture-perfect

Fireworks explode while partially obscured by trees

Not all plans to watch fireworks turn out, well, picture perfect.

After a late-evening early-birthday picnic for my mom at Sterling Nature Center, after we bid farewell to my mother and my brother and his adorable family, I asked Arius if he wanted to check out the Fair Haven fireworks. He said yes excitedly and, even though it was already about 9, with the Wall of Fire beginning at 9:30 and fireworks launching about 10, we headed west hoping for the best.

We found a parking spot over a giant puddle just off the main street and walked a few blocks to find a large gathering of families at the east side playground stretching north to Little Sodus Inn. On the whole I subscribe to the theory of the wisdom of crowds, especially for local knowledge, so I spread out the blanket and Arius even caught a snooze as amateur fireworks hour lapsed and we were ready for the professionals.

Then the first shot went up, and everybody in the park murmured about the same thing: The trees are in the way. Whether the launch spot moved because of flooding or for whatever reason, you now had a park full of people with an obstructed view.

The young woman one blanket over who seemed to be taking notes on every absurd utterance or happening to that point could have filled several pages of her notebook on what happened next. Spectators uprooted their blankets and bodies, and I suspect this is somewhat what the California gold rush looked like. A recently awakened Arius and I joined the nomadic party because why not?

But no good options presented themselves. Little Sodus Inn was crowded, no bare patches of land emerged and the herd was clamoring toward any desirable spots. I asked Arius if he wanted to go home, and was happy that he said yes.

We managed to catch a fire nice bursts from the sidewalks of Main Street, and watched for a few more moments from the car as I waited at an empty intersection before I pointed the Jeep east — meaning we also avoided a traffic jam.

I’m all about celebrating life’s imperfect moments, and this was another example. You can catch fireworks anywhere around Independence Day, and might not recall them later. This family adventure was one to remember.

Fireworks exploded, partially obscured by trees and buildings

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Thursday travelogue: Saranac Lake, the real/rustic Adirondacks

A view into a clear Saranac Lake from a parkside pier

If one just went by a drive-by appearance, one might think Saranac Lake is kind of the scrappy little sibling of shiny, tourist-laden Lake Placid. But spend some time there (as I have this week), and you might be impressed. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Saranac Lake is more the rustic, real Adirondacks to Lake Placid’s corporate version of the Adirondacks.

If I had to describe Saranac Lake in one word, it would be “community.” This is a community where people all seem to know each other, are nice to each other and genuinely seem to like each other. Even if you’re an outsider, they’ll treat you like one of their own. There’s also a very DIY vibe to it.

An Irish band plays in a park, as kids run around

Music on the Green was a hit for all ages

I saw a sign about a free concert on Wednesday, so I went not expecting too much. But for the Music on the Green series, a little park was packed and a really good band from Ireland, JigJam, played. It was truly an event for all ages, with kids dancing and running around in circles with each other. It felt very much like a snapshot of Americana.

A breakfast burrito with home fries

Breakfasts in the Adirondacks are big and tasty, such as this Origin Coffee breakfast burrito.

My base camp was a nice little inexpensive Air BnB just a few blocks from the center of the charming village. My host Rob said to try Origin Coffee Co., best coffee in town. He was right, but also the people were so genuinely nice. Wednesday was the last day of classes, so many teachers came in and many warm congratulations and general loveliness took place. The bar Bitters & Bones looks somewhat like a shack from the outside but, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, is bigger and more awesome on the inside. I found myself in many great conversations and receiving excellent advice, including on hiking Cascade and Porter mountains.

Bitters and Bones pub hosts a variety of drinks and even has a live feed of bears on a big TV

At Bitters and Bones, you can find food and drink and conversation and if you’re lucky, live video of bears in Alaska on the big screen.

Don’t get me wrong: I still like Lake Placid and visited it yesterday as well. It’s a beautiful place with many good shops and eateries of its own. But my time there felt transactional — in stores and where I ate, I felt like a customer. In Saranac Lake, I often felt like a friend.

I enjoyed going home, but I’m genuinely missing the briefly established routine of getting a cup at Origin Coffee in the morning, or a drink and conversations at Bitters and Bones in the evening. But to find a place like that, a home away from home, only makes me look forward to visiting again.

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Unrequited love song of the vendor: A play in three acts

Act I:

Dear Mike:

In your position as director of web development[1] for Rockville University, we’re sure you’re always looking for ways to save time and money. That’s where Bugger comes in! Bugger is a combination CMS, media tracker, social media engagement platform and CRM all in one!

We provide real-world, purpose-driven, best-practices synergy to you and your team! Do you have time this week for a quick 10-minute call[2] so we can discuss how we can add value to your organization?

Talk soon!
Silas Mann

  • [1] We got this from a mailing list several years out of date but didn’t feel like taking the time to actually check out your department or website to learn this isn’t really your title or responsibility.
  • [2] This will probably be a 45- to 60-minute call where we’ll only half listen to you while plugging our product, followed by calls/emails a few times a week. Even if you say no, we’ll bug you again toward the beginning of the next budget cycle and then annually until our company goes belly up … or you do.

Act II:

Dear Mike:

We’re really surprised we didn’t hear back from you[3] about our amazing CMS/MT/SMEP/CRM yet! Maybe you’ve been a little busy; we understand.

How would a call Thursday morning work you? Maybe 9 a.m.? If not give us another time for a quick 10-minute chat so you can start delivering value to your institution.[4]

Have a good day!
Silas Mann

  • [3] Mike has marked this as spam and won’t get this or other messages, and will be thankful for the person who created that one-step feature.
  • [4] Let’s try to make Mike feel like he’s letting down his employer by not opening himself up to a lifetime of follow-up calls.

Act III:

Hey Mike:

Still surprised that you haven’t taken us up on this magnificent offer![5] Did we mention some of the exciting new additions Bugger has in the works?[6] We also offer the latest cutting-edge technology[7] that will keep you light years ahead of your competition.

Did we mention we have a new whitepaper[8] coming out that shows how our kind of product can lead colleges like yours to higher applications, better yield, less summer melt, a higher spot in the U.S. News and World Report Rankings, higher alumni giving rates and free ice cream? We’d be happy to send it to you for no charge if you want!

It would be a shame if you decide, for whatever reason, that Rockville University isn’t interested in being a market leader in adding value to your institution[9], so we look forward to hearing from you.

Warm regards,
Silas Mann

  • [5] That mark as spam feature is pretty wonderful.
  • [6] If you’re actually interested in these “new additions,” we don’t have them yet, but we’ll tell you they’re “on the roadmap” and we can “circle back” on them eventually.
  • [7] We call them “cutting edge,” but by the time we finish the job (late and over budget), the technology will be a couple years out of date.
  • [8] Funny how whitepapers always confirm exactly what the vendor who commissioned them wants them to.
  • [9] Passive-aggressiveness, for the not-win.


Dear Mike:

I recently took over your account from Silas Mann, so I wanted to check in on any progress. I know that as director of web development for Rockville University, you’re always looking for ways to save time and money.

That’s where Bugger comes in! Bugger is a combination CMS, media tracker, social media engagement platform and CRM all in one! We provide real-world, purpose-driven, best-practices synergy to you and your team!

Do you have time this week for a quick 10-minute call so we can discuss how we can add value to your organization?

Talk soon!
Guy Newman[10]

  • [10] Repeat cycle until the end of time.

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