Category Archives: words

On unplugging and plugging in: Austin Kleon’s ‘Keep Going’

Cover of Austin Kleon's new book, Keep Going
For many people, Austin Kleon’s “Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad” could be the right book with the right message at the right time.
 
Much like in his first bestseller, “Steal Like An Artist,” Kleon presents a fast and enjoyable read that is a thought-provoking checklist inspired by great creative minds through his structured lens. Some of his suggestions seem so simple as to be self-evident, but he’s pushing back against a world where we too often eschew simplicity for complicated, vexing and unhealthy obsessions, so this comes across like a breath of fresh air.
 
Speaking of which, one of my favorite chapters here is titled “Demons Hate Fresh Air.” Kleon relates how he, his wife and two sons (in a double stroller) go for a three-mile walk almost every day which is “often painful, sometimes sublime, but it’s absolutely essential to our day.”
 
The walk is “where ideas are born and books are edited” and “really a magical cure for people who want to think straight.” He even cites the Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic’s 2300+ year old advice of “solvitur ambulando,” or “it is solved by walking.”
 
There’s a reason such wisdom remains for so long: I’ve found walking and running to be two marvelous cures for everything from small phrasing conundrums to writer’s block. Whole blog entries, songs, poems or parts of book chapters tumble from my head while out for a nice walk (though I really should get better at preserving them before I forget). Without even the benefit of fresh air, when I’m stuck for a headline or lead to a story, walking up a flight of stairs to the third-floor bathroom at work almost always results in a breakthrough.
 
Walking, Kleon adds, “is great for releasing our inner demons, but maybe even more important, walking is great for battling our outer demons.”
 
The people who want to control us through fear and misinformation — the corporations, marketers, politicians — want us to be plugged into our phones or watching TV, because then they can sell us their vision of the world. If we do not get outside, if we do not take a walk out in the fresh air, we do not see our everyday world for what it really is, and we have no vision of our own with which to combat misinformation.
 
This battle with a digital world’s negative effects surfaces throughout the book. In the chapter “Build A Bliss Station,” he speaks of the importance of a place and/or time to make the point of disconnecting. I’m one of those who finds early hours ideal for creative work, and Kleon wonders how many people get sidetracked by the often soul-crushing habit of checking the news first thing in the morning. “There’s almost nothing in the news that any of us need to read in the first hour of the day,” Kleon writes. “When you reach for your phone or your laptop upon waking, you’re immediately inviting anxiety and chaos into your life.”
 
In the chapter “The Ordinary + Extra Attention = The Extraordinary,” he reminds us: “Pay attention to what you pay attention to. … Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you.” Think about the people you know whose attention is always wrapped up in political arguments on the Internet — where nobody changes their minds — and how they could use that time more wisely.
 
Back to the “Bliss Station” chapter again, that also wonderfully lays out one of my new favorites: JOMO, or the Joy Of Missing Out. Social media helps foment marketers’ covetous construct of FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out), where we look at everybody’s highlight reels on social media and think they’re having more fun than we are (which is not necessarily true). Kleon cites a rejoinder from writer Anil Dash: “There can be, and should be, a blissful, serene enjoyment in knowing, and celebrating, that there are folks out there having the time of their life at something that you might have loved to do, but are simply skipping.”
 
Kleon’s book is really a nice way of re-evaluating our priorities, habits and processes as much as it is a book about creativity. You can certainly miss out on this book — Kleon would support that, in theory — but it is also quite capable of bringing its share of joy.
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Spontaneity + the arts = a magical combination

The spontaneous creation of the arts is one of my favorite things in the world. From an improv comedy show to a musical jam session to street artists, the idea of creating and collaborating in the moment is an amazing thing. That’s why I was so impressed when it happened right in front of me at the Sterling Cidery on St. Patrick’s Day.

My kid and I were visiting Fair Haven, my adopted hometown away from home, and popped into the cidery, under new owners and with a permit for the day. People clearly miss the place and can’t wait for it to fully reopen, as it was packed before 2 p.m. A nice combo led by Larry Kyle played in the room just off of the main serving area. We sashayed into a back room (or “lounge,” as I like to call it) where Arius passed the time playing with Scrabble cards and inventing rules of a game involving plastic mice that none of us could figure out what the real rules might be.

Then things got interesting. A lone guitarist came into the back room to tune up. Then Bob, father/father-in-law of the cidery’s founding owners, came back with his guitar and the two started jamming. Then a third musician joined them, and soon enough you had singalongs and more and more people filling up chairs for this completely unplanned performance.

It was really cool although perhaps a bit less enjoyable if you’re a 6-year-old who was looking for some quiet while he made up rules for a game with plastic mice. So we bid our adieu, making more room for the increasing audience.

Three musicians play as other sit around

An spontaneous performance in an unplanned venue lasted several hours with a rotating cast of musicians.

I went back to the cidery that evening by myself and, to my surprise, musicians were still playing in the back room. And musicians were still performing in the original performance space. The new owners and I found it really cool that each room with its acoustic musicians and spontaneous set lists were distinct and not audible to each other, yet also very organic creating the scenes in front of their own audiences.

And that’s the magnificent thing about the arts: Performances and presentations aren’t set. Even the most seemingly structured are not: You can follow a band for 10 concerts in 10 different cities and you’ll see something different every time. Now take this formula with a revolving cast of musicians with no set list and very little forethought in what they’re playing. And then add a second unexpected performance space, where musicians rotate between their ad hoc bandmates, and what do you have?

Pure magic. You don’t need leprechauns or even St. Patrick’s day for that to happen, and it may well be better than any pot of gold.

Four musicians play

Larry (O’)Kyle performing in the main musical space of the Sterling Cidery with friends, before he went to play some more in the new backroom performance area.

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Losering: Ryan Adams’ long tale of waiting to derail

Until last week, Ryan Adams was easily within my top 10 favorite artists. Seeing him live was on my bucket list. I own almost every one of his solo albums — which says something given how many he’s released — and everything from his previous band Whiskeytown. He announced plans to release three albums in 2019, and I was planning to get them all.

“Was” is the key word.

I knew he was not a good bandmate. I knew he could be moody and angry. In these more enlightened times, when we try to make allowances for mental health and addiction, it was easy to see him as the tortured artist. He was an unabashed nerd, seemingly the bard of lovable losers everywhere.

Then the often-manic Adams started tweeting about lies and media and trust, like a fly caught in a web, and it all made sense when The New York Times published “Ryan Adams dangled success. Women said they paid the price.” — a devastating account of his ongoing manipulation of female musicians, attempting to use his influence and ability to record them to attain various levels of desired admiration.

From graphic text messages to an underage bassist (whom he kept asking about her age, hoping she was older) to withdrawing offers that could help women’s careers when they didn’t reciprocate his advances to lots of things related to showing off his nudity, the story depicts him as a creep whose behavior ranged from manipulative to emotionally abusive. While he has denied the characterization, the exhaustively researched article includes his own texts and interviews with many female musicians that depict a pattern.

More recently, Rolling Stone has noted that Adams’ problems were “hiding in plain sight” through his lyrics, often commanding, manipulative and vaguely menacing. To a degree, this feels like psychoanalysis with the benefit of hindsight, the way many people suddenly scrutinized Kurt Cobain’s lyrics (which were far from atypical of bands of the era) to say they should have seen his suicide coming. That said, Rolling Stone does make an interesting observation on his song titles:

In Adams’ songs — so many of them structured in the command form, as begging pleas — he established control by projecting his needs and vulnerability onto his subjects: “Come Pick Me Up;” “Call Me on Your Way Back Home;” “Stay With Me;” “Come Home;” “Save Me;” “Please Do Not Let Me Go;” “Gonna Make You Love Me;” “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight.”

Fair enough, even with the voluminous output of Adams’ catalogue and allowing for sample size. But that the wide nature of his actions went so undetected for so long speaks to both the emotional manipulation that kept them from telling their stories and the prevalent nature of abuse in the “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” archetype of the music industry.

Additionally sad is that the women who endured this behavior had one more thing in common: They lost interest in music after going through the emotional wringer. On top of his behavior, Adams robbed them of a gift that brought them joy as he made the idea of making music no longer appealing to them. This feels perhaps the unkindest cut of all.

The thought that Adams isn’t putting out any new albums is much less of a loss than the many outstanding records his targets will never release because he destroyed their musical dreams. I count 18 albums of Adams and/or Whiskeytown in my collection that I don’t think I can listen to. From an artistic standpoint, they are as beautiful as ever, but everything about them now seems ugly. To borrow a song title from “Gold,” one of his most acclaimed albums: It’s harder now that it’s over.

Guess I have room for a new musical bucket list item now. May it be seeing an act that respects women as much as it does music, and that unabashedly and honestly brings love and joy.

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How the media bungled ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’

Man with large old-fashioned megaphone

(Image courtesy of Vancouver Public Library Historical Photographs)

Pop (music) quiz.

Do you know how many radio stations there are in the U.S.?

15,330

OK, tough one. Maybe this is easy.

Do you know how many radio stations in the U.S. announced they would stop playing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” this year?

What do you think? A dozen? Dozens? A hundred? Hundreds?

Try this number:

Four.

Yes, four — at least as far as all the media accounts I scoured.

  • WDOK in Cleveland
  • KOSI in Denver
  • KOIT in San Francisco
  • WHIT in Madison

Those are all I could find under multiple articles with overreaching headlines like “More radio stations ban ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside amid #MeToo controversy,” “Even more radio stations have banned ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’ but listeners are fighting back,” and “Backlash as more radio stations ban ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside over lyrics.”

Oh yeah, at least two of those stations have put the song back in rotation. But let’s not let facts get in the way.

Facts sure didn’t get in the way of so-called regular media and the social media machine as articles and commenters shouted about “several radio stations” (four is “several”?), “radio stations across the country” (geographically correct, but disingenuous) and the whopper “radio stations everywhere” banning the seemingly creepy (yet slightly less so in the context of the times it was written) holiday standard.

I don’t really have a horse in the race of whether or not to play it — Do I like it? Not really. Would I tell others not to listen to it? Not my thing, but whatever. — but the bigger problem here is the hype and the lack of context spread, or how a few became several that became radio stations everywhere.

These are political times, and the idea — real, inflated or imagined — of “politically correct” types banning the song plays toward interests and agendas that want to a) feed culture wars and b) distract you from things that are actually going wrong that might impact actual human lives, to keep you from knowing or caring.

Yet it’s really sad how easily so many media outlets bought something impacting 0.00026 percent of U.S. radio stations (yes, I know, Canadian stations did, but USians don’t generally care) and turned it into a huge, nefarious network of an imagined anti-fun movement of cultural policing. (And hey, if somebody finds that dozens or hundreds of stations banned it in the U.S., I’m happy to update and correct this post.)

“The hardest thing to kill is an idea,” one of my history professors liked to say, and it now extends to narratives that take over social media. He imparted that wisdom before Facebook could easily be manipulated into apparent truth and launch a thousand memes. So of course those oversimplified narratives fully fed the Facebook Outrage Machine, which is perhaps the most fuel-efficient construct ever, able to run long distances on very little substance.

Then came the memes making fun of the “bans” (by four U.S. radio stations), and making fun of those making fun of the “bans” (by four U.S. radio stations) and on and on until the truth, the scope of the actual news, became irrelevant.

Think about whether you shared one of those links or, if not, how many of your friends (or “friends”) shared them, and whether you liked or commented on them.

Now think about that, and think about how easy it is for the news and alleged trends to be manipulated.

Baby, it’s cold outside the walls of media literacy.

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‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is a kind of magic

Queen on stage as portrayed in Bohemian Rhapsody

(Twenty-First Century Fox promotional photo)

Going into “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I knew to expect great music — Queen is one of the best bands ever, after all — but ultimately the story and the performances make this a movie that will rock you.

In retrospect, the ascension of a bunch of musical misfits who created norms-defying songs and led by a strange-looking frontman really is an underdog story. So many of us either caught Queen’s ascension at the time or afterwards that going back to the beginning and realizing/remembering just how unusual this band and its music was becomes instructive.

The talk of Rami Malik deserving an Oscar nomination as Freddie Mercury is legit. Since I don’t pay much attention to entertainment news, it really did take me half the movie to realize it was the same guy from “Mr. Robot.” Malik is asked to show us a Freddie who is at turns confident and lonely, hot and cold, and coming to grasp with his sexuality and its place in a more constrained society, and he delivers magnificently.

But I was additionally pleased the movie didn’t make this all about Mercury and sell short the contributions of his bandmates. The rest of the band, who look strikingly like their real-world selves (especially Gwilym Lee as Brian May, but also Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor and Joe Mazello as John Deacon), show a range of emotion and real chemistry to bring us even further into the tale. That the movie includes May’s vision for the stomp-clap of “We Will Rock You” and Deacon presenting his disco-influenced bass riff that became “Another One Bites the Dust” are fabulous bits that really flesh out the band’s collaborative talents — and makes the times when a misguided Mercury pushes back on the band’s family feeling even more compelling.

Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin has both some heartbreaking scenes as Mercury’s wife who realizes he is gay well before he accepts it but also heartwarming parts as somebody who sticks by him even as his life strays the wrong direction under manipulative manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). Even seemingly smaller roles like Mercury’s family and his eventual partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) allow the performers to show genuine humanity and decency many such movies wouldn’t bother to provide.

One could quibble with the historical accuracy, or lack thereof, of parts of the film. From the formation of the band through when Mercury actually received his AIDS diagnosis, the filmmakers take some liberties with facts and timelines. This should probably bother me (and my history degree) more than it does, but a biopic is not a documentary. The reworking parts of the backstory come in service to creating a more powerful story, and the film is such a fun ride that I won’t get hung up on it. This is a Hollywood tale, after all, which is both based on a real band and a wonderful bit of escapism.

If you’re a Queen fan, it goes without saying you should see this movie. But even if you aren’t, the music and the story and the performances are all so engrossing, enjoyable and entertaining that it’s likely you’ll leave the theater as a Queen fan. It really is a kind of magic.

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#heweb18: solving the mermaid’s dilemma

A mermaid performs in a Dive Bar aquarium

It’s perhaps an apt metaphor that one of our favorite stops during the recent HighEdWeb Conference in Sacramento (aka #heweb18) was the nightly mermaid shows at a place called Dive Bar. Because, in a way, higher ed communicators find themselves in the mermaid’s dilemma.

The folk tale that also served as the basis for the Disney blockbuster “The Little Mermaid” features the mermaid Ariel falling in love with a human, but facing a difficult decision: If she remains true to who she is, as a sea-dwelling mermaid, she has no future with the man she loves. If she could adapt human form, she could never go back to her mermaid lifestyle.

We feel like that in the higher ed digital community sometimes. We try to stay true to ourselves and what we know our best practices, but something we find ourselves trying to please others in ways that go against our own core values.

We can gain enough expertise to speak at a conference full of brilliant humans, only to be treated like paupers on our own campuses. Through education, training, sharing ideas, innovation and trial and error, we gain expertise that allows us to generate success for our institutions and our audiences. But then HiPPOs and various others with no knowledge of these acquired best practices dismiss our expertise and make requests we know are not good for our institutions: Post this flyer on social media, put this dense mission statement prominently on the website, write this story that we’ve said no to others in the past and now will have to write 10 more in the future.

But the thing about the mermaid’s dilemma, and folk tales in general, is that it assumes a false dichotomy: We can either be this thing or that thing. We make the same mistake in higher ed: We can either do things our way or their way. But that’s overly simplistic. Generally fairy tales work themselves out with some kind of deux ex machina or some kind of magic. And you know what: We work in positions where we can make magic happen.

As it turns out, closing keynote Sir Ken Robinson gave us the keys for getting past our mermaid’s dilemma. He spoke of the three Cs that aren’t used enough in educating children but which can better prepare them for the future: curiosity, creativity and collaboration.

Curiosity: Yes, we think we have the answers, but have we, in fact, asked the questions? One facet of curiosity is that we need to get outside ourselves (or get over ourselves) and learn more about what those asking things of us truly want. Another facet of curiosity is always looking for a better way and trying new things to move our institutions — and the industry — forward.

Creativity: This is where the magic happens. Whether it’s in writing, video, photography or other content creation; coding; design; implementation of technology; or any other part of digital communications, we put our minds, our hands and our teams to work to solve problems, even the ones that seem difficult if not impossible.

Collaboration: The idea that, in higher ed, we only have our way or their way is self-destructive. That administrator or dean or faculty member whose requests might rub you the wrong way wants the same thing you do: to recruit great students, provide them with opportunities and pave the way toward fruitful futures. We might disagree on the methods, but we want the same outcome. This is an opportunity for you to cultivate your curiosity (learn more about their viewpoints, problems and needs), instill your creativity (find clever and effective ways to solve their problems) and collaboration (remember that you’re on the same team, and to go out and build those teams. And #heweb18 shows how many of us collaborate with other campuses by sharing expertise, ideas and advice.

To those I would add a fourth C: Care. This came up in multiple presentations and contexts. We do what we do because we care about our institutions and our students. But speakers also kept promoting self-care: about finding the right work-life rhythm, about finding ways to recharge and refresh our bodies and minds and about realizing that if we’re not happy and energized, we can’t bring the best to our institutions and our students.

For those of us blessed to work in higher education, it isn’t a question of doing things in the way we’re comfortable with or abandoning what we’ve always known to please others. It’s a question of how we can make our choices work for everybody at the table, and ultimately work for our students. It’s hard work but it’s also a kind of magic.

And to attend a conference where we constantly learn new and exciting things, see mermaids swimming in giant aquariums atop bars and attend the awesome annual #karaokeplane where hundreds of people — both from the conference and locals — come together for an uplifting  evening of improvised entertainment … well, it’s enough to make you believe that magic can happen.

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The Frank Turner experience: part concert, part therapy

IMG_2304

Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls rocking in concert

Seeing Frank Turner live is as much of a group therapy session as it is a(n excellent) concert.

Frank’s catalogue includes beautiful, poignant song about broken people trying to mend themselves. His words have found many of us at the right time in the right place with the right message. For me, songs like “Recovery,” “The Next Storm” and “Get Better” all lifted my spirits and my thoughts when I really needed it. And looking around the crowd that enjoyed Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls’ show last night at the State Theater in Ithaca, I was far from alone. Many people were shouting his lyrics back cathartically, while others wore their emotion on their faces, these songs washing over them and making them feel cleansed.

He’s been through a lot himself, known as a man who got where he is by a rather ridiculous work ethic couple with being a charismatic everyman. It comes across in his songs, his shows and, if you want a nice read, his autobiography “The Road Beneath My Feet.” Frank is a rock star, to be sure, but this nervous, angular, foul-mouthed Englishman really feels like one of us.

Frank tells audiences his shows have two rules: “Don’t be an asshole” and “If you know the words, sing.” If you don’t know the words, he says, you can dance. But he also urged the crowd to dance during various songs, so much of the crowd was singing and dancing.

He started with a slow song, the title track off his new album “Be More Kind,” which thematically set the theme for the night. Frank and the band picked things up with “1933,” one of a few tracks on the new record castigating fascists and racists (as any good punk rocker would) and by the time the crowd was sing “we can get better/because we’re not dead yet” from “Get Better,” the show was in full gear.

A smattering of people had their smartphones out taking a lot of pictures and recording, although it seemed like less than an average show. Frank and the Sleeping Souls provide a very immersive concert experience, best not viewed through a tiny lense. Take a few photos to remember the experience, sure — I usually do mine during the first few songs, then put my phone away — but realize this a live and dynamic thing you should enjoy in the moment. In “Don’t Worry,” the first track on his new album, Frank even has a few lines that seem to address the need to spend less time with technology and be more human:

Don’t let your heart get hardened into stone
Or lose yourself in looking at your phone
So many so-called friends
And still you feel alone
You should spend more time with the do’s than with the don’ts

This was an evening about doing and feeling and singing and dancing. Frank inserted a three-song solo acoustic set, which included “Smiling at Strangers on Trains,” a reworking of an old song from his previous band, Million Dead. Then he asked the crowd up front to make a circle and a mosh pit broke out (I was more concerned about my glasses than my body, but we all made it through).

The band closed the set with “Photosynthesis” (the show-closer for some previous tours). During the break before the last chorus, Frank said we had a chance to take this feeling, this positivity forward, that on Monday morning we could go to work or school and choose not to be assholes, to make compassion in fashion again and to simply be more kind. It sounds cheesy to say, but it was actually quite inspirational.

His four-song encore included one last fast dancing song, “Four Simple Words,” before he closed with “Polaroid Picture,” a song about making memories last. He asked the crowd to put their arms on each other’s shoulders, and soon strangers on both sides of me stretched out their arms and smiled. So we were one big, sweaty, happy wave of people swaying side to side together, one more indelible memory during a song about just such a feeling.

The best art is about transformative experiences. For many of us fans, that’s what Frank Turner’s songs mean to our life. Last night felt that way too, where even a solo like me was dancing with hundreds of strangers turned friends. How many of us got up this morning and went to work or school and decide to be more kind as a result? We’ll never know for sure. But what if we did?

 

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