New position and role: making stories happen

Charles Kuralt on his typewriter

Back around elementary school, as I watched Charles Kuralt wrap up one of his magnificent “On the Road” segments, I decided that I wanted to tell stories for a living. And I now have a new role, new title and new responsibilities at work that makes this more of a reality.

I’m taking on a new title as director of news and media services, although if such a thing was possible, I’d like to think of it as the director of storytelling. I now head a four-person professional team that includes writer Jeff Rea, videographer Jim Kearns and photographer Jim Russell, plus a squad of great student storytellers as always, with our main goal of telling the stories of SUNY Oswego, and why the college is a special community.

Maybe that comes in the form of a news story (once known as a press release), maybe it’s a video (although topping the Oz Chicken Patty’s virality will be a challenge), a photo that transmits a thousand words, a narrative Facebook post, a tweet, a ‘gram, a Snap or a blog post. It’s rather exciting to think of stories taking so many potential forms, and working with a talented team that can help bring these tales of awesome people doing amazing things to life.

The main challenge will be trying to figure out how to make our resources meet the possibilities, as every member of the Oswego family is a hero with an interesting story (or two or nine) that we could tell, but whether it’s a Campus Update Spotlight, a video about student research or a Friday #oswegram, our job is to work together to bring this content to the world.

And while it’s not traveling around America in an RV telling the extraordinary tales of ordinary people, it’s still pretty cool.

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‘Heaven is a better place today’: RIP Gordon Downie

Gordon Downie performs live

“Heaven is a better place today
But the world is just not the same.”
— “Heaven is a Better Place Today,” The Tragically Hip

There may have never been, and may never be, a better frontman in a rock band than Gordon Downie. That’s a high mark, to be sure, but if you’ve ever seen The Tragically Hip live, you know that he belongs among the greats for his vocals, his sense of flair and drama, his showmanship and connection with the fans.

That’s why I was so saddened to learn that he has succumbed to the brain cancer that robbed us of one of the great songwriters and minds in rock and roll.

The first time I saw The Hip live, he wound up on the floor shouting “let me out!” during “Locked in the Trunk of a Car.” I can’t explain it other than to say it was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen live.

When I saw the band live at Highland Park in Rochester, a rainstorm moved in and scattered most fans, but Gord wanted to keep playing despite the not-so-safe conditions because he had that kind of connection with the audience. The band came back and played to a much smaller crowd after the rain passed and the stage cleaned up, but he put forth the effort as if he was playing to a packed stadium.

I mapped a visit to the Pacific Northwest around the time the band played in Vancouver and my friend Laura somehow scored us second-row seats. I’d seen The Hip a few times in the States but to see Gord up close in his home and native land, where he was revered and among the most beloved statesman, was to see a performer in all his glory.

Throughout the years, he had so many small and entertaining running bits, almost blending pantomime with performing. He would do crazy antics with a handkerchief, scuffle with a microphone stand and generally make the smallest things entertaining.

But even as he improvised bits, he also improvised songs on the stage that later became tracks on records. His extemporaneous brilliance was awe-inspiring.

And when the band made its last tour last year, despite the circumstances of his illness, it was a kind of victory tour: Venues sold out, fans packed every stadium, ovations were loud and moving, and Gord and the boys kept their emotions in check (mostly) to return the love letter to the fans. I cried then.

I’m fighting back tears now. I knew this day would come and I thought I could write something profound. But my heart hurts for his family, his friends, his fans. This man meant so much to me, so much to those who loved him — and maybe more to his native Canada then any entertainer.

You were ahead by a century, Gordie. Your music will continue to be a treasure. We’re all richer for hearing you.

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A successful conference that discussed failure.

Keynote presenter Felicia Day with the incomparable HighEdWeb President Colleen Brennan-Barry.

Keynote presenter Felicia Day with the incomparable HighEdWeb President Colleen Brennan-Barry.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Intended or not, that was a major message coming through for HighEdWeb 2017 (#heweb17) that rocked and inspired hundreds of attendees in Hartford. The conference itself was a tremendous success — and one that, perhaps paradoxically — addressed the idea of failure, and why it’s part of the process, more than any other gathering I can recall.

A moving and magnificent keynote by actor, author and content creator Felicia Day especially drove the point home. Day — who pioneered successful crowdfunding for entertainment and has brought the enjoyment of a fun nerdy character to everything from her project “The Guild” to “Supernatural” to “Dr. Horrible’s Singalong” to the “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” reboot — was honest in how many times she took the wrong path on the way to an amazing career.

“Mistakes are rewarding,” she said at one point. “They are the best thing you can do.” She added that people are more successful when they risk failure instead of moving cautiously toward what they consider guaranteed success.

Day added we should treat ourselves as our own research projects — the key is to discover ourselves, as “the greatest tragedy is to not be who you are.” She has coped with anxiety and a desire to be perfect, and learned along the way there should be no shame to reach out for help, whether via a support group or counseling or anything that can bolster our mental health.

She said her own daughter serves as a kind of inspiration: We all have some joy in our lives we wouldn’t have if not for mistakes. Lose the regret, Day advised, and instead of dwelling in negativity, live a good and kind life that shows that being different, even being nerdy, is cool.

I had the honor of asking a question in the resulting audience Q&A, which essentially said that, yes, this really inspired us, but how can we bring the similar attitude — mistakes are OK and fuel success — back to the sometimes risk-averse atmosphere of higher education? While acknowledging that Hollywood was very risk-averse, which is why she independently funded so many wonderful projects, Day noted the idea of doing pilots the way the TV industry does is a great solution. Doing a pilot project, no matter how small, that shows something can be done is a useful first step to larger projects that can help our students, our colleges and our world.

One thing is certain: Bringing the honest, intelligent and engaging Felicia Day as a keynote speaker was by no means a mistake.

Theme warning

Presentation slide: Get permission to fail

Unfortunately, I don’t even realize which presentation featured the slide Amy Wolf shared about getting permission to fail, but it perfectly encompasses something that came up a few times.

In her session that won the Best of Conference award, “The Art and Science of Collaboration,” Day Kibilds of Western University discussed using lessons learned and avoiding past mistakes can develop collaboration and drive winning projects. All with a “Game of Thrones” theme, I should add. In short, she encouraged us that if think about worst-case scenarios (like zombie White Walkers overrunning the Seven Kingdoms) to motivate stakeholders to work together, if we have the right players to have honest and healthy discussions, and if we acknowledge institutional mistakes and/or inconveniences, projects can be turned around if treated as an opportunity for learning.

Unknowingly, I joined the trend as I presented “7 Habit[at]s of Social Media Storytelling.” (Thank you to Donna Talarico for the marvelous recap!) And I’m not just saying out of realization as I developed the presentation I had taken the wrong approach — don’t base it on channels but on content and process instead — and had to practically rewrite the whole thing, nor because I goofed in thinking I could get it completed in just 45 minutes (sorry).

Nope. I’m happy that the presentation included a slide that read:

You will fail sometimes, but that’s OK.

The only people who never fail are people who never try.

And this #heweb17 wonderfully encouraged us to try, fail and try again. It’s really the only road to success.

 

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Ad concept: Experience the world, but not through a lens.

Tree with sunlight coming through

Just had an idea for an ad. Could be for something like Jeep, a destination like the Adirondacks, maybe outdoor apparel.

It starts with a family packing the car (a Jeep?) for a wilderness vacation. The dad says, “Let’s do a pre-vacation selfie!” The mom and two kids turn around, click and they’re off.

At every stop, the dad wants to do the same thing. The mom and the kids are less and less interested in the selfie and more interested in seeing what’s around them in every scene.

Finally, the dad goes to take a selfie and sees nobody is into it. He turns around and he sees that his kids are standing with their arms out as a baby deer creeps tentatively toward them. The mom is looking on lovingly, appreciating how much her kids love nature.

The dad smiles, puts his phone in the pocket, and walks over to put his arm around his life.

I don’t have a tagline yet, but it would be something along the line of experiencing the world around you instead of through a lens.

I’d actually be less interested in selling a product as I would a valuable life lesson.

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13 days as a drunk

Just in time for my 23rd birthday, I was laid off from a job I loved but, in retrospect, wasn’t ready for. It served as impetus for 13 days of drinking, a kind of extended pity party.

I should note that my birthday and last day at my first professional job wasn’t technically the start of the drinking; my go-away day was a Monday and as a young man living in a city with friends who liked to celebrate, I had already partaken on the previous Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. When you work at a seven-weekend festival that’s wrapping up, that amount of celebration is not unusual. What followed was, at least for me.

Not only had I lost my job, but I had just moved to a new place where my two roommates were headed out of town for a festival in California, leaving me in kind of an empty nest. One of them never even moved back in and the other one still owes me money. But that’s water under the bridge; the point is that many things conspired to make me want to drown my sorrows.

When you have your 23rd birthday, there’s nothing unusual at all to have a few drinks on a Monday. And the next night was Flip Night at the old Shacki Patch, where a really good band always played and if you called heads or tails correctly when the bartender flipped a coin, you got your drink for free. I don’t remember Wednesday’s deal, but Thursday was Men Are Pigs Night at the Ferris Wheel, where you paid $2 at the door and could fill almost anything (beer ball, garbage can, you name it) for $2.25 (alas, it was Golden Anniversary) and, again, you’d hear a good band play.

Then the weekend came about and the cycle repeated.

Finally, on a Wednesday, a friend called and asked if I wanted to go out, and I just said no. I’ve come to realize that moment of knowing this could all keep going south was a big moment.

The days in between

“These are the days in between,” a song by that name by Canadian band Blue Rodeo would say many years later, “when everything seems hollow and mean. Don’t want to move, just want to forget. Smoke another cigarette and go back to bed.” Substitute “alcohol” for “cigarette” and you pretty much had the second half of that August.

In my new unemployed state, I would rise in the morning feeling number, draw a bath and listen to an earlier Blue Rodeo album, “Casino.” It’s still one of my favorites but the songs really hit my mood. Like album opener “Til I Am Myself Again.”

I want to know where my confidence went
One day it all disappeared
And I’m lying in a hotel room miles away
Voices next door in my ears
Daytime’s a drag
Night time’s worse
Hope that I can get home soon
But the half-finished bottles of inspiration
Lie like ghosts in my room

Admittedly, I wasn’t in a hotel room, but I felt a sense of transience that left me rootless. After what seems like a pretty successful college run, I’d moved four times in the previous months and now lived in a place virtually abandoned by the roommates I’d moved in. In days before the internet, you just had the phone, the front doors of your friends’ places and alcohol. Lots of alcohol.

Fire and ice

As I tried to come to grips from going from award-winning college journalist to finding what seemed like the perfect job to applying for unemployment benefits and feeling like a drain on the society I had wanted to better, finding solace in a bottle was not difficult. The house I lived in was a couple doors down from a Paura’s Liquors where Mad Dog 20/20 was available for about two bucks. The Pauras owned the first place I lived in town, and then where I moved as I started my drinking days. Months after I moved out into another apartment they owned over the liquor store, that house of blues burned down under suspicious circumstances, at least if you buy the story that a tenant who was evicted told the landlord, “I’m going to burn your fucking house down,” and shortly thereafter somebody who knew about the well-hidden basement started a fire in it. I don’t know if he successfully fled or if somehow the mystery wasn’t solved.

The liquor store, which I lived over before and after the house itself, just burned down a few months ago. In between, a bar across the street from it named Embers (ironic, in hindsight) also burned down, under suspicious circumstances. As did the New York Pizzeria a block down, which was a frequent source of sustenance. So much of my past burned, but not before I tried to burn my own future.

Embers — which featured a special of a pitcher of Bud Dry or Bud Ice (remember that?) for $2.10 — was one of my several bars in the neighborhood, on top of the apartments of friends who gladly shared their alcohol with me, as I would with them (the liquor store did good business).

Other bars in the area included:

The Sting, right across the street at West Third and Bridge, which had a nice patio. I had a portable phone that got reception there, the novelty of being in a bar and being able to send and receive calls predating the popularity of cellphones, which has since slid into a selfie, self-centered, phone-fixated culture. But I digress. The Sting is still there, although I couldn’t tell you when I last visited.

Walking down Bridge between Second and Third streets, you would first encounter the oddly named Gokey’s Cheese Shop. It was a generally quiet place where the college theater kids, some of whom were my brother’s friends, would hang out. It later became Cafe Zero, a quasi-biker bar with the best jukebox in town (blues, obscure rock, etc.). It is now the eastern half of my current favorite bar, The Raven, and the Cafe Zero sign hangs in the women’s bathroom.

Step out of Gokey’s, walk a few steps west and up a flight of stairs and you’d be in The Brick Bar. With its brick decor and nice view of downtown, it has remained somewhat encased in amber, almost the same as those days. I visited most frequently when a friend bartended and offered, ahem, drink specials not on the menu. I keep meaning to go to the Brick when they host a band called the Red Elvises, described as “a Russian-American band that performs funk rock, surf, rockabilly, reggae, folk rock, disco and traditional Russian styles of music.” Which is simply the most beautiful description of a band I’ve ever read.

Stumble back onto Bridge Street and hang a left on West Second and you’d reach Hard Times. Whether a literary reference or an apt description of a rust belt town during the recession, the place had a crooked pool table where we learned to play the slant and a bartender named Renee who always seemed to be working. We were often the only ones in it. No surprise it didn’t stay open much longer. It’s been renovated and is now a calzone eatery.

From there, you’d travel a couple blocks down to the short Water Street for the rest of the neighborhood bars. The aforementioned Ferris Wheel was apparently a former punk club with chain-link fence on windows. It was a total dive and I loved it. It’s been through a stretch of businesses, including Club Crystal, but then came back as just The Wheel.

Across the street sits one of the venerable bars in town, Old City Hall. So named because, well, it used to be the city hall. A majestic building that has been in various conditions over the year, it attracted a more earthy clientele and Dead-influenced and cover bands were the usual fare.

If you crossed Bridge to the upper part of Water Street, which is a parking lot, you could find Shenanigans open some night. It was also owned by the people who had laid me off, so while it was a nice place, I wasn’t in any hurry to visit. But it didn’t stay open long either.

The road out and back

Any and all of these places were stops, early and often, during my 13 days as a drunk. The thing about an extended bender is that you’re not necessarily drunk the whole time, but you are drinking for a lot of it.

Usually a beer, some cheap vodka, some 20/20 or whatever else was in the house was part of my post-long-bath lunch, perhaps with ramen noodles or mac and cheese or a sandwich. Sometimes I went out in early afternoon or, when more patient, waited for my friends to get out of work. They’d call me or I’d call them, but I almost always had somebody willing to lend an ear and bend an elbow for a beer. With no need to drive, we didn’t put the brakes on our habit til we were tired or closing time.

Then stumble home, the block or so back to my empty apartment a trip of building sadness and loneliness. I’d shut off the lights, put in a cassette tape and lay on my mattress and stare at the ceiling, wondering where it had all gone wrong. Or I’d climb in the hammock on the small back porch and swing back and forth, gazing at the stars and feeling especially small.

Then, finally, I had enough of having enough.

A friend called to see if I wanted to go out drinking, but before I could turn the corner into my third week of drinking, I politely said no, I didn’t feel like going out that night. After some small talk, I hung up and felt a bit better. Hangovers and drinking binges and blackouts can only seem like reasonable answers for so long.

It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time but, knowing some alcoholics who never figured out how to refuse a drink, I realize in retrospect it was a big step. If you or a loved one are battling the bottle, hope exists.

Summer melted into fall, the patio bar of The Sting was filled with leaves instead of people, and then winter settled in. Winters in my town are, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, invented by God to show people who don’t drink what a hangover is like. Fortunately, I felt that actual feeling less and less.

I worked a couple of weeks at the beginning of the spring semester at the college bookstore, a time they called rush when they hired additional temporary help. As expected, that time came to an end but with an employer actually thanking me and saying they were sorry they couldn’t keep me on. Even as I went back on unemployment, that bit of uplift meant a lot.

Within a couple of months, I was interviewing for an actual dream job — doing publicity for Oswego’s Harborfest. I’d never actually done PR in my life, although my friends at the newspaper who were PR majors asked me to help me with their homework, so I read their books, helped a bit, and sniffed: “A PR person is a cross between a journalist and a whore.” But then I discovered I really wanted to be a whore, so to speak, to sell a festival that I enjoyed to the world.

While I’d written news stories, I had never penned a press release and had only news clippings in my portfolio. So I went to Penfield Library on campus and read every PR book I could find as well as “What Color is Your Parachute?” I came up with the idea of writing a news release on myself as my cover letter, and sent everything off. I figured it would either net an interview or a one-way ticket to a garbage can.

It got me an interview. It went OK. They gave the job to someone else.

That person quit after one day.

I was a number-two choice, but the festival director called me and essentially gave my life a second chance. I worked for Harborfest for seven years, learned a lot, made countless friends and built professional experience that still underpins what I do at work.

And, more importantly, has never made me want to drink for 13 days in a row again.

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The Ringo Principle: A measuring stick for business and life

John, Paul, George and Ringo hit America

Been listening to a lot of Beatles lately (as happens) and this morning while enjoying “Octopus’ Garden,” yet another brilliant facet of the Fab Four hit me — and how it provides a lesson for business and life. Let’s call it the Ringo Principle.

The drummer born Richard Starkey was a full-on member of The Beatles, but it wouldn’t be controversial to say he was its fourth-best singer and composer. This is no slight on Ringo; the fourth-best hitter in the 1927 New York Yankees’ famed Murderers’ Row is in the Hall of Fame. Ringo is in any and all applicable halls of fame and regarded as a legend in the business, and rightfully so.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney are two of rock’s most iconic voices who penned much of the soundtrack for a generation. George Harrison may have been the Quiet Beatle, but “Here Comes the Sun,” “Something” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” were hit songs judged by many critics to be among the group’s top masterpieces.

But despite the profusion of talent among the three-headed monsters of pop rock fronting the band, Ringo was no slouch. His affable self-effacing humor and the giants in front of him have obscured that he was a very talented and innovative drummer; listen to some of today’s top percussionists or just appreciate his amazing rhythm lines on “Come Together” or “Ticket to Ride” (just for starters) if you need education.

The Beatles could have just stuck to their recipe of writing many of the biggest hits of the 1960s, but they didn’t mind giving Ringo the spotlight, vocally and otherwise. He wrote and sang the beloved “Octopus’ Garden” as well as the dark circus-y romp “Don’t Pass Me By,” but The Beatles willingly let him sing at least a song on many an album to let his distinctive voice provide a rounder soundscape. His vocal contributions include the timeless anthem “A Little Help from My Friends,” and “Yellow Submarine,” the title track to their terrifically trippy animated movie. While composing the latter, McCartney explained, “I was thinking of it as a song for Ringo.” One of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century actively thought about crafting tunes to fit his drummer’s voice.

The real lesson here is one of inclusion and opportunity — ideals that improve business and our lives. At work, do you let members of your team stretch their creative and problem-solving muscles or do you put them in projects that give them just enough room to function? Do you provide opportunities to shine through presentations or as the public face of a project, or do you keep them shunted behind their computer? Do you actively give them praise, whether to their face, in front of others or even when they’re not around?

Or, if you work in higher education, do you recruit students to be stars or merely to be helpers? Do you let them write blogs? Do you give them social media takeovers that infuse their personality into your accounts? Do you allow them to be talent — not just script-readers but creative contributors — in your videos?

Many people learn they are good at one particular thing and get pigeonholed. They become the drummer, the dependable hand buried at the back of the stage. It’s our jobs as leaders and as humans to make sure they all get some spotlight, some shine, some stardom. Teams only excel when we are more than willing to show that success is only possible with a little help from our friends.

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How new urbanism infuses Oswego’s $10 million downtown funding

When I saw the details of the $10 million in grant funding to the city of Oswego’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, I immediately thought that somewhere Jane Jacobs must be smiling.

In the middle of the 20th century, as America begun sprawling into suburbs and throwing up highway systems, and as planners pondered the disastrous and destructive concept deceptively called “urban renewal,” Jacobs penned a counterpoint that inspired a new look at how to revive cities with the influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Contrary to the desire to (over)stretch city and suburban geography at the time, Jacobs instead pointed to urban density — putting people as well as living, eating and shopping spaces closer together as fomenting vibrancy, citing the likes of Boston’s North End and NYC’s Greenwich Village as examples. She saw “the need in cities for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially.” Lively downtowns are self-supporting, she adds: “A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street,” giving “people — both residents and strangers — concrete reasons for using the sidewalks on where these enterprises face.”

Her theories were a large inspiration for what is known as “new urbanism,” which rejected the idea of paving paradise to put in a parking lot.

According to the New Urbanist website, its movement:

promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities composed of the same components as conventional development, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of complete communities. These contain housing, work places, shops, entertainment, schools, parks, and civic facilities essential to the daily lives of the residents, all within easy walking distance of each other.

While one can kvetch over details of the DRI funding (it’s 2017, that will happen, particularly in the comments sections of media websites), the announced details aim toward making downtown Oswego much more livable, workable, walkable and shoppable.

Building blocks

1924204_38182887343_3361_nMy brother lived in the first converted downtown loft spaces in Oswego, in the Browne-Davis building, and they far exceeded expectations because it easily found a crop of professionals who desired urban living with great convenience. But it becomes a chicken-and-egg proposition: People who live downtown will shop and eat there, but how do you build shopping and eating centers if you don’t know what traffic you’ll get? The DRI looks at these as intertwined.

Ben Kail of The Palladium-Times has started the process of unspooling the funding (subscription required but recommended) and also posted the original news release. While at least one local media outlet looked straight at the shiny (new indoor waterpark!), focusing on novelty is not seeing the forest for the trees.

Among the commendable features that dovetail with new urbanism:

  • Mixed-use developments on West First Street at Bridge Street, Harbor View Square (First and Lake streets), and a redeveloped Midtown Plaza (providing more downtown residences mixed with places to eat and shop)
  • A multi-building development to fill a vacant lot and upgrade structures on West First Street with an eye toward 24/7 vibrancy (also encouraging more foot traffic by better connecting anchor attractions)
  • Renovating the Cahill building to include housing and dining (historic preservation as economic development)
  • River Walk improvements (cultivating natural beauty as another downtown draw)
  • Funds to support additional renovation of the Children’s Museum of Oswego (already an anchor for family activities that positively impacts surrounding businesses)
  • Create a “pocket park” on Market Street (a compact recreational space as an attraction uniting parts of a business district)

While many more details are forthcoming, it’s an exciting box of building blocks.

Back around 2000, when I was features editor at The Palladium-Times, I wrote a series of articles on historic preservation and how urbanism tied into a community’s sense of history and togetherness. But even as I covered very vibrant places, the missing piece of the puzzle was a resolve and a philosophy to dedicate to a city core instead of sprawling strip-mall exurbs. Today’s announcement shows, at long last, a dedication — financial and philosophical — to make new urbanism work in Oswego.

Will the last piece — people to live and revive all the corners of downtown — fall into place? That’s the final question here, but a confirmed commitment to downtown, to say nothing of millions of dollars, gives us hope.

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