RIP Chris Cornell. Say hello to heaven.

cc.jpg

Pained yet poised. Cracked yet composed. Forceful yet never forced. For many people of my age, we can remember the first time we heard the voice of Chris Cornell, coming from our radios sounding like nothing else. Ultimately: Stunning.

But even that was not as stunning as the news this morning that the former Soundgarden lead singer, a man who helped change the face and tone of music, is dead at a young 52.

David Bowie and Prince were huge losses to the musical, and mainstream, world. But the death of Chris Cornell feels like losing a friend who helped you through some low times.

Often I would crank up Soundgarden’s Down on the Upside (my personal fave) and let their modern rock that channeled classic blues drown out whatever inadequacies I felt at the time. The lyrics from “Burden in My Hand” — “fear is strong and love’s for everyone who isn’t me” — was a signature lament during about a decade of young adulthood as I struggled with self-loathing and anxiety. In Chris, I had a channel for the thoughts I could not formulate, a partner to help me collect myself to overcome.

David Bowie and Prince were superstars, celebrities on another plane. Chris was somebody who could walk into your corner bar and throw back a few drinks as unobtrusively as his quick background “Singles” cameo.

After Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a smash hit, Soundgarden could have just recorded a love ballad or two, or a safe pop record, and cruised into retirement with enough money to spend freely … and to also buy the Sonics and bring them back to Seattle. They had hit albums, singles that sold well enough (without selling out their sound) and millions of fans. And inspired dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other bands.

And then they broke up 20 years ago, the creative tensions that helped forge such heavy and edgy music too much to stay together. My brother used to live in Seattle and said it was huge news there at the time, even as so much of the world had moved on to whatever new sound was the flavor of the month.

The man voted Guitar World’s “Greatest Rock Singer” kept on creating, singing and playing — first solo, then bringing together Audioslave for a good run, then eventually reconciling with Soundgarden, even if their 2012 album King Animal seems more like a footnote compared to the sweep of their work two decades earlier.

But his work from the brief 1991 collective Temple of the Dog, honoring former roommate and Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, is what stays with me as a fitting epitaph:

I never wanted
To write these words down for you
With the pages of phrases
Of things we’ll never do
So I blow out the candle, and
I put you to bed
Since you can’t say to me
Now how the dogs broke your bone
There’s just one thing left to be said
Say hello to heaven

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Commencement ceremonies: From the 12th century until …?

Student at commencement

Imagine that through some divine provenance the founder of your college or university was allowed one day to see their creation in 2017. Much of it would look quite strange and incomprehensible. Yet if they strayed into your graduation ceremonies, these rituals would appear quite familiar — even if your college was founded in the 18th or 19th centuries.

In his monumental series “The Day the Universe Changed,” science historian James Burke said that rituals are ways that societies and institutions can make episodes of change feel comfortable and supported. Think about wedding ceremonies: The addition of hashtags notwithstanding, the way most couples tie the knot has not changed much in centuries. Ditto baptisms and funerals. And commencements.

Commencement ceremonies date back to the 12th century, and while they no longer proceed in Latin, the graduation gowns don’t necessarily look dissimilar. But tradition holds its strongest sway in things most formal:  The suit that hundreds of men (me included) will wear at this weekend’s commencement ceremonies date back to military formalwear of a bygone era; their cut and style may change but in 100 years you would likely see something similar at weddings and funerals and graduations.

But will we still have commencements then? When people can telecommute or technologically be present anywhere in the world, will the class of 2117 still be in the same large halls as trumpeters, robes and parades of academic regalia?

I’m betting we will. We’ve already gone through a couple of decades of the fastest technological evolution in history and what has changed about graduations? With the exception of live web video streams, not all that much. Some bold colleges have played with things like hashtags and near-real-time photos appearing on big screens, but that’s window dressing.

Sure, students can tweet, stream, post, gram and snap during the ceremonies, but they still do so while wearing a robe, then accepting a diploma frame and handshake from some prominent official and strolling down a ramp, beaming toward the audience celebrating their amazing accomplishments.

In the 21st century, as we spend more time online, study after study finds people feel lonelier and more disconnected than ever. That’s why our social and community gatherings, especially those ones rooted in tradition, become more important than ever.

The more some things change, the more they stay the same. It will be interesting if future historians will look back upon this year’s graduation ceremonies and see it as something comfortable and familiar.

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Break the cycle. Go do your thing.

Person does thing.
Internet reacts to person doing thing.
Internet expresses outrage about reaction to person doing thing.
Internet expresses outrage about outrage over reaction to person doing thing.
Internet expresses outrage about outrage about outrage over reaction to person doing thing.
Internet becomes outraged and miserable.

Break the chain.
Turn off your internet.
Do your own thing.

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Teamwork does make the dream work

Teamwork.

teamworkIt’s important in business. It’s important in life (even if just sharing popcorn). And it’s important in hockey and other sports.

Hockey is very demanding in its teamwork, as you only have six players (or less, if you anybody’s in the penalty box) working together in a very fast-moving sport to either score or prevent goals, where one goal can be make or break. Maybe that’s why hockey teams are so close and the bonds of friendship so precious.

Oswego lost to Hamilton 3-1 in a hard-hitting fast-moving game full of lots of great teamwork on both sides over the weekend. This wraps the 2016-17 campaign for the Lakers and our winter sports. But the final score is only part of the story.

And the end of the game, I saw rugged men who played through injuries that would have me curled in a fetal position giving each other meaningful hugs, goodbyes to their hockey days together, sharing of emotion. Much like the women’s hockey team after their loss to Utica — they come together, they embrace, they show they’re a team.

In 5, 10 or 20 years, who knows how many plays they’ll even remember from this game, from any game. But they won’t forget the people they played with. The good times, the bad times, the silly times, and the faces they shared those times with.

Because after that final buzzer, after the score gets recorded and perhaps even forgotten, that’s what hockey — and life — eventually means to those friendships.

Teamwork.

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The struggle is real: The hero’s journey and higher ed storytelling.

Hiking bootsDid you struggle in school? Socially? Emotionally? Or academically? In college? High school? Or even elementary school?

If you’re a human being, you can answer “yes” to that, on some level.

Did the school help you overcome these struggles? Through knowledge? Through helping you gain confidence? Through helping you build your future?

If the answer to this is “yes,” and how strong a “yes” it is, it bespeaks your love and affinity for the school.

Hero’s journey

Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell studied many of most enduring stories to come up with a literary framework known as the hero’s journey — I teach it to classes as it’s indicative of what can drive great storytelling:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the First Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach
  • Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection Hero  
  • Return with Elixir

Not every great story fits this pattern, but think about stories like “The Hobbit” or “Star Wars,” in terms of an ordinary hobbit or human asked to take on an adventure, refusing it until meeting a mentor (Gandalf or Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the steps that followed. Some of the elements will exist in any story — even your own.

Schools and struggles

Every level of education brings challenges inside and outside the classroom, and steps in your personal journey. My own, for example:

Weedsport High School: The classes and coursework came easy. Socializing was a bigger challenge. But that’s not an atypical teenage story? As a result, my high school years don’t hold much glory in my mind.

Cayuga Community College: The classes were a bit more challenging, but I didn’t have many difficulties, except for when I suffered a concussion, missed a few days and came back arrogantly thinking I didn’t need to review what I’d missed. Bombing a calculus quiz straightened out that conceit. But I still lived at home, so it felt like an extension of high school.

The College at Brockport: Hello, struggles! Social. Emotional. Psychological. Moral. Intellectual.  The true coming-of-age story began. I was a shy and skinny teen with bad hair and acne, but until then I’d always had “the smart kid” thing going for me, but now I was surrounded by smart people. So I had to focus on creativity and work ethic as the ways to make a mark — and Brockport created an environment where you could succeed with these traits.

SUNY Oswego: Going back for my master’s degree was the most intellectually challenging and rigorous experience of my education. Which is to say: I loved it! By this time I was (allegedly) mature and (slightly) less socially awkward, so even with a full-time job, the focus on the studies themselves was marvelous and continued my intellectual growth. I really use perspectives and historical insights from my master’s studies all the time.

If you looked at my giving patterns toward my alma maters, they tend to increase in direct proportion toward those institutions that presented me with challenges and solutions. More on that after this metaphor.

Climb every mountain

Many years ago, my friends Michelle and Brent talked me into climbing Whiteface Mountain with them. It’s the fifth-highest peak in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, with the greatest vertical drop this side of the Rockies — and the reward of an inspiring view. It’s almost perhaps the best-known mountain in the ADK because it offers two ways up: by car up a winding highway or — the road less traveled — a challenging physical climb.

If you climb by foot, the trail begins with steep, craggy ascent that if you’re not careful you can burn out your legs or lungs early (spoiler: I sort of did). Then, like any Adirondack Mountain, you have a lot of trails with various levels of ascension. To finally reach the 4,867-summit, you have to do some Alpine-style bouldering scrambling over large boulders. To make it to the summit by climbing really feels like an accomplishment.

As we three emerged at the top, cars were pulling up, including one with a family from Tennessee, where a child looked up at Michelle and said, “are you a hiker?” Then it started raining. The three of us sat inside, muddy and sweaty and probably not smelling great, eating the sandwiches we packed. In perhaps a delicious irony, we ate while watching tourists enter the gift shop and emerge with merch that included “I climbed Whiteface Mountain” T-shirts. We didn’t buy the shirts; we’d earned something else.

For the people who motored up, it’s probably one more tourist stop in their various travels, not meaning much more than a really cool view and a T-shirt or trinket. To me, it was one of the most unforgettable physical feats I’ve accomplished, something I didn’t think I could do but I somehow did. It’s not a mark on a tourist guide so much as a clicked checkbox of life I recall fondly.

As a result, I still support the Adirondacks when I can, whether donating to causes in or traveling to this wonderful region. If I drove up that day instead of climbing, I wouldn’t have this connection. The struggle was real, but the journey was amazing.

Educational/fundraising connection

All these things recently occurred to me as having a connection to what we do as higher education communicators or to those working in alumni relations or development. The mountains students climb, and our help along the way, leave impressions and connections with our educational institutions.

Several years ago, one of my alma maters asked me to serve as an honorary representative for my [number redacted] class reunion. (Why remains a mystery.) My main function was to sign a letter, and they offered to write a first draft. It was a generic and standard letter, but I could modify. I thought back to the reason I stayed connected — the knowledge attained, memories gained, the friends made — and went with more of a “do you remember …” theme tied to our universal experiences.

If I had that chance again, I realize I’d talk more about the shared challenges, the trials and triumphs of college life, and how we came out as better people who were better equipped for success. About the journey to the (more or less) happy ending — that’s what resonates as much as anything.

When my friend Georgy Cohen of Oho Interactive was doing focus groups with students for a college client, some complained that everybody they saw in profiles were too perfect. They didn’t see people who struggled like they did, who needed to overcome, and how the college might play into that transformation.

In a great question for businesses everywhere, Ron Ploof has asked: “Is our product King Arthur or Excalibur?” Whatever you do or make, your product — or college — should be Excalibur, making possible the hero’s journey of your students, the noble quest that is education and fulfillment and a better future.

As I prepare to send a check to one of my alma maters, thinking of the journey and how it helped along the way, I realize that the more challenges I faced and how much the school helped has really played into why I give.

So the challenge to us as college communicators and fundraisers is to recognize these challenges. As a storyteller and director of an online newsroom, I need to convey the stories of students who are finding their way, getting better by the day, due to college experiences. For college administrators, it’s realization that fostering student success, of putting people over outdated policies, of realizing all the different journeys our students take, is a primary concern. For alumni and development professionals, it’s acknowledging that struggles are a part of growth, the building blocks to a great story, that can create universal understanding of why supporting colleges is important.

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Rediscovering the pause button

(Image courtesy of 1982 Atari 5200 ad)

(Image courtesy of 1982 Atari 5200 ad)

We now live in a world where social media is a 24/7 construct; for good or ill, many of us feel like we must be connected, must be on, all the time. It’s like we can’t turn ourselves off. It’s like our pause button is broken.

But for the sake of our mental health, our ability to prioritize, our sense of perspective, we need to remember to pause more than ever.

The pause button, like much of technology, is a recent construct. Those of a certain age probably first encountered the pause button as something to press on a tape recorder or boombox to stop the tape or the music, or to record a favorite song off the radio (waiting for the DJ to pause talking).

A 1982 ad for the Atari 5200 gaming console gave us our first look at the pause button for a real-time progressing activity, also using it as a unique selling proposition. A young man is in the middle of playing Pac-Man (which many of us spent a lot of time doing back then) when his mother (presumably) calls into the room: “Telephone! It’s Judy!” A sly smile creases his face and he hits the pause button which was mind blowing to us the first time we saw it! Of course, the idea of our teen dream actually calling us was far-fetched, but this feature was awesome.

The pause button persisted through VCRs and DVD players and you can now even pause live TV. What we can’t do as easily is to pause ourselves. To stop checking social media. To stop worrying if we’re missing anything. To stop and see a bigger picture.

I’m as bad at this too, but I’ve been trying. I took vacation over the holidays, and even (this sounds pathetic but it’s progress) watched movies on Netflix without worrying about emails or social media and didn’t check my phone compulsively when trying to get to sleep. And you know what? The world didn’t end; 2017 arrived. I realize it’s what I should do. And need to continue doing. The pause is good for all of us. If my adorable son asks me to pause what I’m doing to play with him, he perhaps knows our priorities better than I do.

Having a nose to the grindstone keeps us from seeing sunsets, seeing sunrises and seeing the stars. Micromanaging moments keeps us from spending time in better ways. It is, to paraphrase an old Coca-Cola ad, our pauses that refresh us. Musical scores are made of beats and rests (or pauses, if you prefer) … each makes the other more effective.

So please join me — and remind me — in pausing more in 2017. Let’s stop and eat lunch with other humans instead of wolfing it down at our desks. Let’s take a walk when the weather is nice. Let’s read real books and write our stories and laugh a lot during these pauses. Let’s bring back the importance of the pause button.

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Plenty to enjoy: 2016’s top 20 albums

We lost plenty of great musical talent in 2016, but the show must go on. And thankfully, plenty of good music came to our ears this year. Here’s my take on a fine year for albums, a celebration of the 20 best:

  1. David Bowie, Blackstar: 2016 was a year of loss, and the Thin White Duke was one of the biggest. By the time many of us bought this, it was as if Bowie was singing a self-elegy from beyond the grave, but the man was an artist and perhaps that’s the most appropriate way to view this farewell.
  1. Lindsey Stirling, Brave Enough: Stirling’s stirring violin work is a constant on this album, but the wide variety of effectiveness for her vocal partners makes this unfortunately inconsistent. Still, it also means many different folks can find a few tracks to especially like.
  1. Radiohead, A Man-Shaped Pool. Radiohead is always difficult to rank because they’re on a different plane than most bands … it’s not whether their albums are brilliant (they always are) but how accessible and memorable they become.
  1. Sara Watkins, Young in All the Wrong Ways: The former Nickel Creek fiddler makes a coming-of-age tale, yet doesn’t. It’s easy to forget she was just 8 when she co-founded that band and had worldwide fame as a teen, so this intrigues yet remains universal enough to please.
  1. BJ Barham, Rockingham: The frontman for American Aquarium has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and this semi-autobiographical album takes us even further down the road. Barham’s great writing, unshakable honesty and heartfelt vocals make it a journey worth taking.
  1. Bob Mould, Patch the Sky: The ageless Mould continues to craft intelligent and rocking collections full of heft and heart. Sometimes he grows serious, sometimes he waxes amusing, but he always has something worth listening to.
  1. Pete Yorn, Arranging Time: While I’m a big fan of Yorn, the strange thing about his albums are that they are all solid and full of great songcraft, yet fail to leave much of a lasting impression. But in the moment, this is an enjoyable record.
  1. KT Tunstall, KIN: The Scottish songstress returns and in fine form. The record feels like social commentary, a notable journey and yet like an intimate tale told by a friend over a pint. Worth savoring.
  1. Ashley MacIsaac, Helter’s Celtic: MacIsaac continues his reputation as an ace fiddler with an interest in extending the instrument’s footprint through explorations of sampling and hip-hop. He generally succeeds here, although the material isn’t as memorable as one would expect with such an exciting concept.
  1. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob: First, the small kvetch: This is yet another T+S record that is unnecessarily overproduced. The Quin twins’ songwriting and singing are powerful enough on their own, and the overall more rocking feel helps. Even their flawed albums are better than so much else you can find.
  1. Rachael Yamagata, Tightrope Walker. Through many twists and turns of this project, Yamagata assured fans the result would be worth it. It is. The album’s heartfelt lyrics, sultry vocals and overall ambiance were worth the wait.
  1. Drive-By Truckers, American Band: Powered by perhaps the most dead-on topical single of the year, “What It Means,” the latest by the Athens Southern rock powerhouse finds them continuing to evolve and take on new topics many avoid. Listen to this album and you’ll be glad they do.
  1. Alex Dezen, Alex Dezen: The lead singer of The Damnwells continues to excel in his solo efforts. This one is alternately funny and poignant, silly and deep, owing to Dezen’s superb songwriting skills.
  1. Blue Rodeo, 1000 Arms: Probably one of the more rocking albums from the Canadian folk-rock-country outfits, and also one of its best. Guess they’re not mellowing with age but instead trying to capture more vitality.
  1. Lydia Loveless, Real: Loveless has long been due the acclaim that finally came with this album. The unusually piercing honesty and unquestionable sexiness of her material brings to mind the best of Liz Phair, yet with a bit of twang that makes it all quite remarkable.
  1. The I Don’t Cares, Wild Stab: This duo of Paul Westerberg and Julianna Hatfield produces music about as awesome as you would expect. Here’s hoping they care enough to produce more material.
  1. Tokyo Police Club, Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness, Pts. I and II: The Canadian band put out two EPs under a title riffing on the classic Smashing Pumpkins track, and combined they are some fantastic, jagged, exceedingly catchy rock-pop.
  1. Okee Dokee Brothers, Saddle Up: A Western Adventure Album: OK, it’s technically a children’s album, but it’s some very well-written, arranged and performed Americana that can appeal to music lovers of any age.
  1. The Tragically Hip, Man Machine Poem: It’s hard not to get sentimental over the thought of this potentially being the band’s swan song because of frontman Gord Downie’s terminal cancer. That probably made me treasure it more. But Gord and Co. still kick it and even plow some new acreage in a record that more than stands on its own merits.
Kaleo with a white unicorn

Courtesy of Kaleo’s Instagram: The group with a white unicorn … and the year’s best record.

1. Kaleo, A/B: If somebody told you last year that 2016’s best album come from an Icelandic rock band, would you have bought it? Believe it. The blues-influenced “Way Down We Go,” Soundgardenesque “No Good” and mega-melodic “All the Pretty Girls” are three of the best songs of the year and the rest of the album is more than solid. Small wonder you’ll hear it pop up all over your favorite TV shows … the success is well deserved.

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