Category Archives: words

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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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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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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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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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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Forget Thanksgetting … give Thanksgiving its due

In one of the most awful campaigns in modern memory, Verizon converts the holiday to “Thanksgetting.” Walmart talks about being open early and late on Thanksgiving and implying that “everybody wins” (except for the employees who don’t get more time with loved ones). And my inbox has already seen dozens of emails from retailers about using today to get a jump on Black Friday.

Enough!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I don’t consider it Black Friday Eve.

My memories are of my late grandparents wrangling the extended family for sumptuous meals, laughter and love. We were relegated to the kids’ table, but that was part of the entertainment. If somebody had brought the idea of shopping at a big-box store on Thanksgiving up to my grandfather, he would have ridiculed it, with good reason.

Canadians do their Thanksgiving far away from Christmas, and I’m sure it’s pleasant to just get together with family and delve into food without the clatter of the commercialized version of Christmas nibbling at the edges.

America being America, you can’t bring up the ludicrous nature of retailers opening on Thanksgiving without an argument, since that’s what Americans do. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FIREFIGHTS AND POLICE WHO WORK ON THANKSGIVING YOU OBVIOUSLY DON’T CARE ABOUT THEM SHARE THIS IF YOU AGREE 93% OF YOU WON’T BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT GOOD AMERICANS, etc.

It’s a disingenuous argument. We all appreciate that police, firefighters, hospital workers and many others work on Thanksgiving and other holidays. It’s required for society to function. I seem to recall society functioning pretty well long before Walmart and its ilk found it necessary to put profits over family by making Thanksgiving about gorging in the aisles too.

***

OK, I’m out and back to gratitude. Instead of thinking about getting, let’s be thankful for what we have, and who we have in our lives. Go read Dave Cameron’s excellent Thanks-living blog entry to get back to what’s good. And may any arguments today instead be over whether stuffing or mashed potatoes are the better side dish. And the answer is stuffing, of course.

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