Goodbye to a handy man, a gentle man and a gentleman.

The world lost a good man today. Jack, the guy with the white beard in this picture, passed away early this morning. He was my mom’s longtime boyfriend and, for many of those years, the closest thing to a father I had.

He was a handyman, a gentle man and a gentleman. He was also a quiet man and somebody most comfortable behind the scenes. If you live in Central New York, there’s a decent chance you might have set foot in a place he renovated, built or supervised a crew doing work.

Closer to home, he willingly blended into this crazy family who were a package deal that came with dating my mom. He was there to celebrate as the family expanded, and while Arius and Emerson were not his actual grandchildren, at times like in this picture, he very much enjoyed their company.

His health failed in recent years and for various reasons, he and my mother couldn’t spend much time together. But she lives in a place he helped build and, for many years, made feel like a home with the kind of love she hasn’t had much of otherwise. It’s a sad day, but we do take some comfort in knowing he’s no longer in discomfort.

The last project he ever did was leading the reconstruction of my front porch. That feels like an honor for me, since he was a man who constructed and accomplished so much, even if so few know it. I do know that when I step on my porch, I will often think of Jack, and remember everything he built — in every sense of the word.

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Respect the sport: This ain’t no fish story.

The author fishing

If you’re going to get up around 4:30 in the morning on a holiday, it should be for a good reason. The adventure of spending Labor Day on my first fishing charter seemed a pretty decent reason.

My friend Bobby Malo, who co-owns Sterling Cidery with his wife Amy, had reached out because his father (Bob) had booked a charter with White Cap Charters and there was room for me to join them if I was interested. It sounded exciting, so I replied in the affirmative. I didn’t ask about the whole we-need-to-get-up-way-before-dawn thing til later, but it’s not like I sleep in that much, holiday or other.

And so around 6 am, Bobby and Bob and I departed Bayside Marina with Mike, the captain who runs White Cap Charters, and John, his first mate who sets in all the gear. Having watched more than my share of “Deadliest Catch,” I realize there’s nothing particularly simple about fishing from boats of any level of sophistication. And while pursuing salmon from Lake Ontario on a beautiful (if somewhat hot) September day is not exactly hunting crabs in between winter storms on the Bering Sea, it’s no picnic either.

John set out the lines and downriggers and we had a rotation that Bob would take the first strike, then Bobby, then me. The fish seemed to take a couple hours to bite, but thien it was on like Donkey Kong. Bob’s first one managed to break free, and then Bobby brought in a really big king salmon. Then I waited and watched until the telltale pull on one of the lines meant it was my turn.

Folks, I’ve never charter fished before, let alone fished for anything bigger than a Nerf football, so this was quite a thing. Mike and John coached the noob through the basic rules of engagement: when the fish hits, let it run to tire itself out; once it stops running, first pull the pole up as much as you can; then start reeling and lower the rod quickly until the reel stops clicking; then raise the rod slowly as vertical as you can and repeat the process. That first fish felt like an eternity, but then I finally saw it on the surface and repeated the pulling and reeling until John had it in the net. It was all quite thrilling.

We ultimately made it around three times, with Bobby landing big fish on all three of his turns. Bob got one big and one smaller. On my next attempt, one hit and started running and we eventually lost it (certainly because it was about 300 pounds, or so goes my fish story). On our final attempt of the day, I got the reel on a cast that was more than 300 feet away and did a lot of pulling and reeling and repeating. It fought to the end, but eventually we pulled in one that was even bigger than my first.

While all seven salmon will be eaten at some point over the coming months, a part of me felt bad about the whole killing thing. But most of these are not very far from spawning and heading up river to die; they’re not exactly buying green bananas is what I’m saying. And it’s a large population and a thriving local industry, if the 20 or so other vessels also circling over the holes and chutes of Lake Ontario are any indication.

Mike said this is his final week of the season. The salmon are just one warm rain away from catching wind of the Oswego River and spawning upstream, there to be met by the throngs of fishermen in the lucrative fall salmon run. They are fresher and more sport at this point.

And when I say “sport,” the precision of the labors of Mike and John as well as the sheer effort we put into trying to land each one — my man vs. fish rounds felt about 10 to 15 minutes, although they were likely less — explains why charter fishing is so appealing and thrilling. To say nothing of the veritable feast that comes with it.

We finished the day with a late lunch at Turtle Cove, during which the skies opened up and scattered everybody else eating on the deck. But our group of three stayed out under the table umbrellas through the torrential downpours and steady rain that led us back to sunny skies. We’d just had an adventure on the high seas (or lake anyway), so enduring a bit more nature seemed only appropriate.

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All the lonely people — let’s help them all belong.

Cloudy morning over campus

I was on campus tonight for quick stop (saying hello to the 2018-19 Oswego women’s hockey team — go Lakers!) but a walk while killing time brought back some not-so-pleasant memories of starting college.

I saw a number of people sitting by themselves, maybe by choice, maybe not. I gazed out the window toward the bus stop where one student looked like he wanted to join a conversation but wasn’t sure how. I saw people who, in an exciting new environment surrounded by thousands of people their age, paradoxically looked a little lonely.

In essence, I saw myself in those people.

When I went away to school at Brockport, it should have been the most exciting time in my life. But it was the most lonely and discouraging first couple of weeks. I was a shy, skinny, awkward, pimply kid with bad hair. I didn’t know why all these kids who were better looking, cooler and richer than I would even want to hang out with me. I wouldn’t say I was homesick so much as just missing a place where I felt I belonged. Fortunately, I decided to wander down to the student newspaper, The Stylus, and found my tribe, including friends who remain to this day.

But what I’m saying is it’s not easy for a lot of people. They’ve left their usual friends, their routines, their comfort zones. They might be homesick. They might be unsure of what to do. They might be lonely.

One of the more gratifying parts of my job is working the incoming student social media communities, in essence trying to facilitate connections for our students before they ever reach campus. I’m blessed to work with staff and students to create content to help with the transition. And many of them find roommates, classmates, friends. But it’s not a perfect science. I met some nice people when I started college but didn’t click with them. That person who seems like an awesome roommate on social media may not in fact be a good match in real life, leaving people drifting.

I can only hope the lonely people looking for their fit can be as fortunate as I am. But even if we can’t make all the connections for them, we can do our part. Be kind. Be thoughtful. Be willing to help. It’s the least we can do.

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A made-up holiday I can get behind.

Stack of

I moved offices recently (an improvement, though I don’t remember how many offices I’ve had for this gig) and am almost done moving/unpacking/filing old documents and such.

Today’s discovery was wonderful in itself — and I didn’t even realize at the time how great it was. Unpacking revealed a bunch of resumes from former interns. These SUNY Oswego graduates have gone on to success since, whether working in social media or higher ed or marketing or communications, but really what came rushing back were how helpful and willing to learn and awesome they all were.

So I took to Facebook, where I’m still connected with so many of them, and decided to tag the ones whose resumes I’d found, and as many other former interns as I could remember who have graduated, as a nice way to say I was thinking of them, and proud.

Old resumes and a thank you + praise of former interns

After posting that (and constantly remembering and adding more former students), I learned it was National Intern Day. I generally roll my eyes at all these made-up holidays, but the timing here was exquisite. But the best surprise was yet to come.

Years ago, one of my interns contacted me during his search wondering if he was cut out for this business. I remembered a particularly good story he wrote and how hard he worked, so I gave him a pep talk and encouragement. It’s the kind of thing I recall from time to time as I see him continue to climb the ladder in college athletic communication. His response was the kind of thing that makes any job worthwhile:

Thanks for the love Tim. I still remember your pep talk that you gave when I was trying to find my place in the job world after college. Those encouraging words when I was down on my luck is one of the sole reasons for my success (such as it is). Your belief in me helped give me the strength I needed to persevere. Not even I realized that day what the message did for me and I hope you know how just your positive words and belief in me and my work has helped get me to where i am.

Wow. What a reminder that a little bit of encouragement and some kind words go a long way. He honestly owes a lot of his success to his own talent and diligence, but to know that I could play any role is beyond gratifying.

So my advice, I’ve you’ve had interns or student workers or others you’ve tried to help along the way, is to consider reaching out to them, letting them know that you’re thinking of them and telling them you’re proud. You don’t need to do it on National Internship Day, but just do it when you can.

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An old camera, a new perspective

Arius takes a selfie

Arius takes a selfie

A photo of Arius taking a selfie, then the selfie he took.

My 5-year-old son Arius was digging through some drawers recently and found my old Sony CyberShot DSC-W110. Decent for photos and some video but got outmoded. Did it still work? Could the battery still charge? Yes and yes.

He showed considerable interest in it right away, and started to learn how to use it off what I could remember and his own trial and error. I was happy to see him fascinated with it and making a creative outlet of it. Hadn’t used it in several years, even before selifes were a thing (the good ol’ days) but he somehow figured out how to take seflies with it. And use the timer. Clever kid.

Arius takes a selfie

Arius figured out how to set a timer and take a selfie. I took hundreds, maybe thousands of photos on this camera and never learned how.

Moreover, I just found the experiment interesting: What does a 5-year-old find interesting exactly? His dad. The family cat. His surroundings. They aren’t the most technically advanced, although something about the spooky lighting in some of them is compelling.

Other than a nice diversion, it also reminded me about the importance of appreciating others’ perspectives. What I might find as mundane, Arius sees as fascinating. Things I think of as old can appear new to him. Whatever our line of work, it’s a reminder that our perspective, our knowledge or our point of view is not the same as our customers or collaborators or even our competitors! It’s good to see how somebody else views the world once in a while.

The author with backlighting

A cat with backlightThe author and cat with some scratching and purring

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Know who you are: The SUNY system’s role in equity

Sean Kirst speaks at SUNYCUAD conference

Sean Kirst — an award-winning journalist and author who is a SUNY Fredonia graduate — was both a keynote speaker at the recent SUNYCUAD conference and one of many SUNY success stories.

The recent SUNYCUAD annual educational conference had a lot of great information, but perhaps most appropriate were some of its keynote speakers reminding us of just what SUNY is. It’s not the Ivy League. It shouldn’t be. Instead, it has a much bigger role in addressing a more equitable society.

Sean Kirst, an award-winning journalist, author of The Soul of Central New York and a SUNY Fredonia graduate, recalled his own modest upbringing and how a SUNY education was really the only way up. Kirst — a top-notch storyteller who several people said gave one of the conference’s best keynotes ever — recalled the “lightbulb moment” in college when all the authors he’d read in his English classes finally made sense in their relevance to life. For decades at The Syracuse Post-Standard and now at The Buffalo News, Kirst introduces readers to wonderful humans, many of them underdogs in some way, but his own ability to tell these stories and his own underdog tale would not have been possible — as he said repeatedly — without a SUNY education.

Famed pollster John Zogby, while not a SUNY graduate but a longtime Upstate New York resident, brought up an important point as he talked about educational trends. While he notes it’s important that SUNY schools continue to attract top-tier students — the most talented and prepared — he said SUNY can’t forget about students who don’t have the flashiest SAT scores or high-school GPAs but can benefit the most from an affordable education. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many of these students who colleges don’t compete for because of their high-school academic profile yet have flourished in college with the opportunities they have — and who will excel (or have already excelled) in whatever field they choose.

As a conference organizer, I’m so happy we also booked Robbye Kincaid — director of Stony Brook’s Responding to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Project — as a keynote speaker, because she emphasized SUNY’s mission of creating opportunity and a more equitable society. We can never forget the inclusive mindset that realizes diversity’s central role in our campuses and society, a point of view that benefits us all.

Chancellor Kristina Johnson added her own affirmation that even with challenges come opportunities to grow, and that the SUNY system is a gem. I agree, and it’s the combination of shining stars and diamonds in the rough that make it so valuable.

I am blessed, as a campus-based storyteller, to see opportunity create these success stories regularly. One of my very favorite assignments from the past year was speaking to winners of our Diversity Graduate Fellowship, which is the SUNY ideal in action. One winner used to be homeless and is now poised for a counseling career helping at-risk and homeless individuals. Another is a single mother teaching at a science charter school with an eye on those who most need support. Another was raised by a single mother in the Bronx and knew a SUNY education was the only way out — and after her master’s degree will bring her important diverse viewpoint to the counseling profession.

The latter winner is Stacy Araujo, who came through the Equal Opportunity Program, which helps low-income, first-generation and other college students who might need more help in transition. (Another Oswego graduate who came through the EOP program is Al Roker, America’s favorite weatherman.) Araujo explained SUNY and the EOP program about as well as anybody I can remember:

“Without this program I would not be the hardworking, focused and determined student I am today,” she said. “And more importantly, I would not have thought myself capable of succeeding during my undergraduate years and pursuing graduate studies.”

As somebody who has an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from SUNY schools — and might not have been able to get them otherwise — I know this is truth. And it’s reason that every day I get to work at a SUNY institution, I know I can be part of making a difference for the better.

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Anthony Bourdain’s end was a tragedy, but his life was a triumph

(Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

Like so many others, I was shocked to open my computer on Friday morning to the stunning news that Anthony Bourdain — the intelligent and irreverent, charming and charismatic chef/author/wanderer — had taken his own life. It has led to discussion of suicide and mental illness, which is always important, but I can’t help but also think of the beloved Bourdain as such an unlikely and uplifting success story.

The man that his friend and CNN co-worker Anderson Cooper aptly described as “one of this country’s greatest storytellers” was, despite his immense talent and work ethic, a very unlikely star.

He worked his way up from dishwasher to star chef in the course of two decades. While he earned his degree from the Culinary Institute of America, he did not follow a path of privilege so much as the old-fashion practice of learning the business from the inside out. He also picked up a drug habit that could have derailed his journey many times but instead deferred to one more obstacle to overcome as he rose to the coveted role of head chef of Manhattan’s beloved Brasserie Les Halles.

But who knew that behind the chef’s hat sat the mind of a tremendous storyteller? It took an impish and impulsive gambit — sending an essay on the inner workings of NYC kitchens that The New Yorker published in 1997 as “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” — to begin to unwrap his successful second act. In 2000, he became an author, and a bestselling one at that, with Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

And then, in his mid-40s, Bourdain’s quick wit, tremendous people skills and unquenchable curiosity about food and cultures became a marriage made in TV heaven. Starting with “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network, Bourdain evolved his storytelling knack and ability to get anybody to open up and share their cultures further with the successful and surprisingly sublime “No Reservations” on The Travel Channel. To watch Bourdain’s effortless charisma and ability to connect, it’s easy to see why CNN decided to work with him, and change the direction of their network programming, with the launch of the series “Parts Unknown” in 2013. It won awards and yet another legion of fans for Bourdain, but for him it was never about just earning fame and fortune.

Bourdain described “Parts Unknown” as “a series of … standalone essays that generally try to focus on the subject of food and where it comes from, but not always.” It was wickedly funny serial storytelling, bound by a sense of place on any given episode … and yet much more. Appropriate given his background, Bourdain was a champion of the underdog and of marginalized people. Food was how he connected with them, but empathy was how he attained their stories.

As he mentioned in an interview with Cooper, he never ever refused a meal offered to him in his travels, no matter how gross or unappealing or not-so-fresh it might have appeared (the worst thing that could happen, he joked, could probably be cured by antibiotics). This is such an important lesson for all of us — he treated cultures, peoples and food with great respect, realizing the way to the hearts of his hosts was through his own stomach. If a person accepts your food, he accepts you on every level.

For all of Anthony’s famed gift of gab, this was the real bedrock of his shows. He may have been profane, hard-drinking and sarcastic, but he did not see humans as greater or lesser, only as fellow humans.

“I still feel I have the best job in the world,” he told CNN a few years ago, “and it’s still fun.” He seemingly had everything to live for — it’s no stretch to spin the old cliche to say men (and women) wanted to be him, and women (and some men) wanted to be with him, because he was so magnetic and magnanimous. For all the travel, logistics and occasional dangerous food, it really did look like a job any one of us would want. That he had a young daughter that gave him a sense of purpose seems like icing on the cake.

Except that seeming to have it all ultimately would mean nothing to him.

I wrap this up with lines from my favorite book of poetry, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Spoon River Anthology. The elegy for Richard Cory, the successful and most envied man in town, ends with a twist that has become sadly recognizable in our modern society:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

 

We’ll never truly know what went through Anthony Bourdain’s head in those last lost moments. But we’re learning what a tremendous impact he’s had on his fans, followers and the friends he made so easily. Godspeed, Tony, and thank you for feeding our bodies and our minds.

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