Category Archives: writing

Losing a center that reflects a community heritage

St. Stephen's Church

St. Stephen’s Church on Niagara Street has a special meaning for a place I haven’t been in much. It’s something I often pass while running, but moreover respect as the last representative of the once mainly Polish neighborhood where I live. But with word coming that it’s on a path toward closing with the consolidation of Catholic churches in Oswego, I feel like our neighborhood — a whole heritage, really — is losing something.

As the last vestige of the ethnicity that settled my neighborhood, it kept some of that alive through a very popular Polish festival where people could order pierogies and golabkis, chat with neighbors and play various games. But the food was the star: Lines would run out the door just for people who preordered — if you wanted to get some fresh, the wait was even longer.

My neighborhood used to feature Polish bakeries and butcher shops long before supermarkets, let alone chain supermarkets, were so prevalent. But all this actually goes back to a bygone era that still plays out, nearly imperceptibly, in our Port City.

Oswego thrived in the mid-19th century, as ships carrying many of the goods heading inland to build the growing United States came into the harbor. Immigrants came to help handle those goods and all the industry that came with being, at the time, the second-fastest-growing city in the state.

The 19th century boomtown saw many Irish, Italian, Polish, German and other immigrants find homes in the Port City. Like in many (especially bigger) cities, they set up their own neighborhoods. The heart of those neighborhoods were often the congregations and the churches, so you eventually had places like St. Mary’s for Irish families, St. Joseph’s for Italian families and St. Stephen’s for Polish families. Neighborhood taverns, eateries and shops sprung up around them. You can still see this pattern in the neighborhood bars so many know in Oswego; the melting pot of the city now means most of them aren’t affiliated with an ethnicity so much as a neighborhood, profession or other taste.

Until now, churches also served as reminders of these neighborhood roots. But now St. Paul’s on the east side will remain as the home of Oswego’s Catholic population. Various demographics and social movements reduced the regular attendees to local Catholic churches, and some had closed previously. The numbers tell the story: In 1910, the Oswego area had 12,772 parishioners; but an October 2018 survey found 1,038 attending masses. It no longer made sense financially or logistically to do anything but consolidate.

But many people will miss their places of worship and social centers. I feel a sense of loss as a social historian, but it’s nothing compared to the people who were married there, baptized on site, had their communions or worshipped there regularly.

But as the church starts looking for some other purpose or purchaser, St. Stephen’s is still a beautiful building that will retain some functions — along with a legacy to the neighborhood. I’ve seen it packed for their festival and, for their recent Easter Mass, cars lined the streets and lots around it. That St. John’s, also in my neighborhood, has become Amnesty Crossfit while its additional buildings are now professional offices, living space and commercial storage, gives hope that the graceful edifice may find new life.

Shrine and memorial near St. Stephen's Church

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Running to where the sidewalks end

Runner standing in sidewalkOne interesting challenge of finding different running routes is that my little southwest corner of the city is The Land Where The Sidewalks End.

My house sits at the top of what was once known as “[derogatory nickname for a Polish person] Hill,” and is one of the oldest in the neighborhood. Most of the houses south didn’t appear until the 20th century, and some not until after World War II. Somewhere in there, the city decided residential streets didn’t necessarily need sidewalks. So where you run the new streets around the Shapiro Park neighborhood, named for folks like Eisenhower and Kennedy and Lincoln, you’re either in somebody’s lawn or the road.

With one exception: my road, West Fifth, a thoroughfare that continues long after Second through Fourth and Sixth and everything else disappears. How far, exactly, do the sidewalks go on West Fifth?

Challenge accepted.

So southward ho, leaving my familiar neighborhood to where the houses span further apart and give way to cul-de-sac streets with names like Ash and Lee and Darling. Where Windsong Lane scurries past Heather Way into Lilac Lane. The Fragrance District, one could call it.

The sidewalk of West Fifth finally ends at Mark Fitzgibbons Drive, just before railroad tracks, Eagle Beverage and the city line, but a new sidewalk thrusts westward toward Oswego Middle School. Fitzgibbons takes you past the school and circles up into Murray Street, which becomes a north-south artery of a nouveau riche neighborhood.

My new route passes the land of gates and giant goldfish ponds and gigantic gardens. Of palatial porches and garages the size of a house. “Country living with city convenience” is the code I learned as the real estate editor for The Palladium-Times. Sidewalks connecting a lot of neighbors who would have no intentions of using them. But for kids walking from the middle school and us weird running types, they are our red carpet.

As Murray Street stretches toward my neighborhood, the middle-class houses return and I realize this is the longest I’ve run without stopping since … I don’t even remember. Past Gerritt and a left onto the familiar Ellen Street and I stretch out my stride a bit for the last two blocks (one of which seems way longer than I remember). I feel the runner’s high making everything blissful as I close the loop with a left onto West Fifth and onto my own modest porch.

I’ve now become a wearer of one of those fitness watch/tracker things, and it tells me I did a non-stop 2.4 miles at a bit more than 10 minutes per mile. That’s what I was running way back when I was actually in shape and way younger! My best run in a decade, maybe more.

Plus, I found both where the sidewalk ends and the beginning of a good new route.

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Running on: sights, sounds, second winds

Post-run photo of legs in front of the first blooms of a magnolia
This morning brought by far the longest run since I returned to the sport from years away, but also a reminder that the sights and sounds and opportunity to reflect are more important than the distance and pace.
 
I live far enough south in Oswego that I haven’t gone anywhere near the main street of Route 104/Bridge Street (my roots in this town) in any of my routes, and only once to Utica Street, the second-biggest east-west thoroughfare. But today I set a goal to get all the way across those to the northern border of our city, which happens to be Lake Ontario, and Breitbeck Park.
 
The run took me past St. Stephen’s Church, the stalwart sanctuary of my Polish neighborhood, filled with folks getting the Good News. Each gathering anywhere is truly unique, as all these people under the same roof will only happen today, hearing and sharing the same things, before going their various paths in life.
 
I wove west to Liberty Street, and my goal was to not walk before Utica Street, all good, then I told myself the next block, and the next, and then to keep running past Bridge Street, which was made even easier by light traffic. Ideally, I would have run all the way to Breitbeck Park, but after I convinced myself to get another block past Cayuga Street and then to Seneca Street, I knew my legs needed a break. Walked a block, then back at it to Breitbeck Park.
 
To those not familiar with Breitbeck Park, it’s really the jewel of Oswego parks, opening up into a magnificent view of Lake Ontario, the Oswego Harbor, our signature lighthouse and beyond. It’s one of the things that convinced me to move to Oswego. It’s also an amazing place for people watching.
 
Not too many people on this peaceful Sunday, but enough. A young couple strode the lakeside walk below. She paused to take pictures on her cellphone of the lake and trees — and not a single selfie! She also handed her purse to the gentleman, who didn’t complain and took it like a champ, fulfilling an important part of any mating ritual.
 
In the park, a parent and child played with a large yellow dog. One day the child will grow up and they will think back to these Sundays in the park as good times. Rejoice!
 
I took a break from running (feeling lazy for it), walking down to the lake trail and into Wright’s Landing. Seven boats were in slips this early in the season, and each of those boats is something special, the result of a lot of work and savings to buy, and to maintain. Those are seven dreams come true for people or families. And I thought about my late grandfather, our main father figure, born 110 years ago this month, and how he built a boat in his retirement years.
 
The boat was called, appropriately, Second Wind. Running, and life in general, is about second or third or tenth winds, and on a day celebrating resurrection, hard to think of a better metaphor.
 
My minimum goal was to run from there to West Park, and I felt good enough to keep running, then past services at the Church of the Resurrection and St. Mary’s Church. Next goal was Bridge Street, then the next block, then the next then across Utica Street. Then a walk, then run, then one more walked block then up the hill to home.
 
In all, I was out for more than an hour and ran about 3.5 miles — longer than a 5K. I realize a sizable caveat exists in the amount of walking in there too. But all around blooms and buds were showing, spring rising majestically. I heard kids in backyards hunting for Easter eggs, and laughter and happiness.
 
May this Easter Sunday, bring you joy, reflection and renewal, as well as second winds and beyond.

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On the road again

Looking down the author's body: windbreaker, loggings, running shoesTwo things that are true about habits:
– They’re easy to get into.
– Once you get out of them, they’re harder to get back into.

I don’t remember the last time I went running. It’s probably been years. Even longer since I did a 5K. I’ve had to chase my child around for sporadic intervals, but it’s not the same. The process of getting my act together and actually going running? That’s a habit I’ve been overdue of starting again.

I’ve always had an excuse. I can’t because this knee is sore. I can’t because my sinuses hurt. I can’t because it’s too cold. Or too warm. Or too wet. Or too dry. Or, well, pick a reason and I’ve probably used it.

It’s so easy to can’t ourselves out of things. Once we start down that path, we’re easily can’ted out of habits entirely. If they’re bad habits, this is a good thing. But if they’re positive habits, one can’t after another creates a whole mountain of can’ts that loom in front of us like a real, no longer metaphorical, object.

But today I decided I’d done enough can’ting. The sun was shining, the snow is mostly gone and spring seems to be (maybe/sorta/kinda) close at hand. I’ve seen so many other friends ramping up for road race seasons, preparing for 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, full marathons and the like. It’s been encouragement — thank you all.

I’ve seen enough people who can to tell me it was time to can the can’ts.

My first run was nothing special. From my house to Shapiro Park, a quick walk around the outer half, then a run back home. All at an easy pace, even if it felt harder than it should.

Three things I know about getting back on the running game.

– It won’t look good. People might dream of looking like a sleek animal when they run. A gazelle. A cheetah. A fox. I look more like a fish that’s flopped out on the land and sprouted wiry limbs. But that’s OK. I’m not trying to impress anybody as much as I’m trying to knock down my own barriers.

– It won’t be easy. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. Going home and sitting on the sofa is easy. Dressing in leggings and a windbreaker and sneakers, stretching, getting mentally prepared and then simply trusting an old, creaky body? Not easy. But getting a body in motion is the first step.

– It’s going to hurt. More muscles than I remember having in my legs are in pain right now. My breathing isn’t where it should be, so my lungs are burning. At some point, my back will chime in as well. They’ll feel better in a day or two.

Look, my running exploits aren’t going to impress anybody. I don’t expect any trophies in my future. This isn’t about medals, it’s about mettle. It’s about kicking the can’ts to the curb by knowing that I can.

One run down, and I just can’t wait to get on the road again.

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Super Bowl ads and 3 trends to watch

inclusion

For the umpteenth (technical term) year in a row, I asked the students in my BRC328: Media Copywriting class to watch the Super Bowl ads and tweet about them. It’s a great foundational exercise this early in the class. And while I felt I had to apologize to my students for how awful the game itself was, and how many ads proved lackluster, some gems and at least three trends emerged.

Inclusion

The best ad — to me and, seemingly the class — was the excellent Microsoft commercial on inclusive technology for gaming. Take some adorable kids, adaptive technology designed and distributed by Microsoft and more than a little emotion and you had a winner. As some students noted, it really does show that gaming is for everybody (and that, once upon a time, gaming was seen as more of a niche market than it really is). Google scored well with their ad supporting job searches for veterans, a deservedly feel-good, solutions-seeking concept. These were prime examples of moving beyond the generic “let’s all get along” sentiment to showing how creativity and technology really make inclusion achievable.

Takeaway: I think the Microsoft ad especially is going to show that good deeds can indeed equate with good business, and will likely (hopefully?) spawn similar campaigns. Ones that show how their product has a concrete impact on inclusiveness should continue to win.

Crossovers

Budweiser and “Game of Thrones” was the most notable (and gruesome) ad that employed crossover of brands, with quite a twist. (Is this canon, meaning the Bud Knight is no more?) We saw T-Mobile and Taco Bell plus T-Mobile and Lyft merging brands in simpler, funny ways. You also had loads of pop-culture references and cameos from the likes of Pepsi and Stella Artois with varying levels of success, with Walmart putting a lot of money into licensing everybody from KITT from “Knight Rider” to the Scooby Doo gang. And can we expect a Chance the Rapper/Backstreet Boys tour this summer?

Takeaway: It makes sense for brands to work together where the big audiences are. And while no bigger audience exists than the Super Bowl, expect more creative partnerships to come.

Technological dystopia

It was not a good year to be a robot. A creepy baby found out it can’t work as an advisor for TurboTax in what was probably the worst ad on Sunday night (there were a million better ways to get to that point). A smart speaker realized it will never get to enjoy Pringles. A robot learned it can never drink the semi-beer that is Michelob Ultra. And we learned that Alexa is a bad match for a number of situations, albeit played pretty well for laughs. Is this a reflection of how we, as a society, are becoming wary of electronic assistants (who may or may not be eavesdropping on us) and actively resisting transhumanism out of a fear that, expressed in the debut SimpliSafe ad, robots are going to take over the world from us?

Takeaway: Technological backlash is real. Co-worker Jim Kearns astutely shared the New Yorker article “The 2019 Super Bowl ads are a case study in technological dread.” Expect the black mirror reflecting our tech anxieties to show its face more and more.

While the ads weren’t as bad as the game itself or the halftime show, only a few were even worth remembering. Maybe with that $5 million placement fee, companies could have also budgeted hiring some good writers. Unless, of course, the technological dystopia is here and they had already hired robot copywriters.

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‘You need to get out more’

“You need to get out more.”

It sounds like a mild put-down, doesn’t it? Inferring somebody leading a closed, hermetic or even lonely life? It’s kind of my mantra of self-talk lately. I really do need to get out more.

Author stands next to high waves and misty Lake OntarioReal talk: While I’m blessed to work in a creative field that involves strategic thinking, it can be mentally draining. In downtime it can be so easy to give in to sitting on the comfy couch, turning on the TV to absorb some sports or pseudosports on the dozen or so themed cable channels or surfing a never-ending YouTube library. It’s winter, a time for cocooning and hibernation in the natural world.

Going out and about is the opposite. You have to put on pants, and sometimes a coat, hat and gloves too. It sometimes even involves (shudder) interacting with other humans. The easy path is the path that leads nowhere. But, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we do not do these things because they are easy but because they are hard.

This is the kind of thinking that finds one hiking in Sterling Nature Center, standing on a beach while snowflakes fly and a stiff wind off Lake Ontario howls into my face. But it’s a smiling face.

In the cold mist of Lake Ontario, birds fly near McIntyre BluffThis place feels soothing, energizing, amazing. It’s not just that Lake Ontario is in my blood. Many a summer evening, the sound of the waves was my lullaby falling asleep. Before I discovered coffee, it was the liquid that got me going in the morning. But the lake is an exemplar of nature itself, and the reality that the world is always changing. The lake is high today. Whitecaps roll crashing in. An icy fog encompasses the lakeshore. Off toward McIntyre Bluff, I see large birds trying to stay aloft. You can sympathize with their struggle.

It’s easy to come here on a summer day. It’s hard — but just as much, if not more, refreshing — to come here in the solitude of a January day. The lake, the wind and the snow paint a palette of harsh beauty but also of a stirring reality. We live here, we get winters … so why not also embrace the tolerable parts? Heck, I even extended the metaphor by falling in my face and getting muddy by not looking where I was going.

Spicy chicken panini with coffee on a diner tableAfter, I went to the Hardware Cafe and General Store and tried something new: the spicy chicken panini (it was delicious). It would have been easier to go home and inhale junk food. This involves wearing pants and interacting with people. And getting over the concept of dining alone, with muddy pants as well, even in a place I visit often.

But ultimately, it was all good. I do need to get out more.

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Days of past and future: Small-town dreaming for a happy 2019.

Meat sandwich of eggs, cheese and bacon

It’s the last day of 2018 and I’m sitting in the Hardware Cafe and General Store on the main street of Fair Haven for lunch. A surprisingly popular idea, it turns out, as the solo server has almost a full house to accommodate. But nobody seems to mind, as we all instead compliment her as she does her best. This was a year where so many of us found ourselves working hard and doing so many things that this seems like an appropriate metaphor … especially as the patrons generally leave satisfied.

I’m not the type to make any grand proclamations or recommendations or resolutions as we leave 2018 in the rearview as we head toward 2019. But I do like to take time at the end of the year to remember and, whenever possible, support things I enjoyed for the year. The village of Fair Haven, which has turned into a sort of adopted other hometown this year more than ever, is a great reason to be thankful.

A little free library in Fair HavenAs I enjoy a plainly titled yet delicious Meat Sandwich (eggs, cheese, bacon between two large slices of bread), I feel blessed that this diner/seller of curios is a place my son and I have enjoyed plenty. Arius is elsewhere today, so he’s not around to charm the population nor make me guess what foods he currently likes, but plenty of other warmth and community abounds. People come in and hug their neighbors or long-lost friends. A woman brought in cookies for the owners, wherever they may be. And nobody’s really in any hurry and never is heard a discouraging word.

After the meal, I will pop across the street to say a quick hello to my friend Bobby in the bank. He and his wife Amy, a teacher in the local school district, opened the Sterling Cidery, purveyor of delicious hard ciders and a convivial atmosphere — it and the cafe are my anchors in a year that saw me visit this village more and more.

Small-town sweetness

Arius looks at a snowman we builtThe latest census counts Fair Haven’s citizenry at 727 souls, although the lakeside community swells in the summer as snowbirds and people in other communities come back north to both modest cottages and homes resembling mansions along the West Bay. When we would spend summers at our camp a few miles down Lake Ontario or the Sterling Renaissance Festival, this is often where we’d come for groceries and modest entertainment. Back then the Fair Haven Register newspaper and my future employer the Oswego Palladium-Times would run stories about the small town’s aspirations to become a year-round tourist destination. Those dreams, like the Register itself, seem to be defunct, but nobody seems to mind that much. Fair Haven’s a gem they are not necessarily in a hurry to share.

While many families have been here for generations, Bobby and Amy are among the new blood. Bobby went to SUNY Oswego, and his history degree eventually found him on the other side of the country working in a museum where he met Amy. She was making hard cider under her sink as a hobby, and their love and an interest in doing more with it blossomed. So when they decided to leave Seattle for a better place to raise a family, Bobby remembered the area and they ended up in Fair Haven, where they have since added two children to the population. Bobby’s parents even moved upstate to join them.

The new year will bring a transition at my favorite cidery, as having day jobs and small children have kept Bobby and Amy plenty busy. They’re in the process of selling to two local couples who have more time and grand plans. Their final weekend of 2018 a few weeks ago saw many members of the community come in as the cidery served its last stock under this ownership — first the blueberry ran out, then the cassis, then standard, then oaken (only the hopped remained when I called it a night). But the inventory and the tidy building will refill in 2019, bringing the populace and their growlers back through its friendly doors.

All around town

Arius in a pirate outfitThis village has served up plenty of food, drink and adventures for us in 2018. Arius and I walked in the parade at Pirate Fest, built (sort of) a snowman during Winter Fest and checked out some music during Porchfest. The latter community-wide musical celebration is in just its second year but has already become an annual highlight. The biggest celebration of the year remains its Independence Day celebration, and I was here this year to catch its Mile-Long Parade from the porch of the cidery with a number of people who were strangers just a year or two ago but are now friends.

If you look east from the cidery or north from the cafe, your gaze would take you to Brandon’s Pub + Grille, known as O’Connor’s until fairly recently, where I’ve enjoyed food, beverages and acoustic music this year. Just west along the main drag of Route 104A is Bayside Grocery, where I’ve secured sustenance to accompany my appreciation of fine cider. Bayside shares a parking lot with Big Bo’s ice cream, where Arius will consistently ask for a chocolate/vanilla twist cone. Down the street a few blocks east sits a re-opened Guisseppe’s Sub and Pizza Shop, which has also provided necessary carbs this year.

Posing with seven salmonAlso on the east side of town, you’ll find a playground that Arius enjoyed a few times this year, and down the hill is a small park along the creek that splits the village, where a few months ago I took my kid fishing for the first time. Across that inlet in a West Bay marina is Whitecap Charters, which took Bobby, his father Bob and I on a much more serious fishing trip, where the two enormous salmon I caught were among a large seven-fish haul for the day. A stone’s throw away sits Turtle Cove Marina and Restaurant, where my brother and I plus our families took our mother for her birthday dinner this year.

My 2018 adventures also included Bobby and I checking out the cider and scene at Colloca’s Winery on the West Bay and some non-cider at Little Sodus Inn north of the playground. I also watched the Fair Haven Tree Lighting Ceremony in the town’s Central Park, which at other times hosted everything from the Winter Fest snow-building activities to a live mermaid during Pirate Fest.

Getting out and getting inArius goes fishing

I’m the product of a small town — although at nearly 2,000 people, Weedsport is almost a city compared to Fair Haven. Many of us wanted nothing more than to get out of town when we could. Not everybody did; some have never moved out of town. Others left and never looked back. Others, like me, come back to visit family but don’t necessarily harbor a heap of affection or nostalgia from a place that seemed so small.

So in a way, my continued love of Fair Haven, here at the northern end of my native Cayuga County, is strange. I guess I’ve always loved small-town living but was looking for the right small town for my affection. Housing prices are cheap (tempting), as is the cost of living in general unless you want to drop $200K or decidedly more on a palace on the West Bay.

Calendar of Fair Haven sights and sceneryAnd if Fair Haven never found that year-round tourist activity, things are decidedly on the upswing. Up until a few years ago, Bayside Grocery about the only place downtown you could expect to find open year-round. Then the Hardware Cafe and General Store — which, as its name demonstrates, has been quite a few things over the years — decided to stay open year round and succeeded. Guisseppe’s is giving it a go this year as well. Under new ownership, maybe Sterling Cidery will join them in 2019 or beyond?

We’re on the cusp of 2019, so why not be optimistic? Before leaving the cafe, I bought a copy of a calendar put together by the talented Kyle Meddaugh, who operates his photography business OnePhoto and a gallery across the street from the cafe. A new calendar for what we hope will be a brighter 2019. Thus even if I’m not in Fair Haven, views of the small town and its lakeside vistas hang on a wall for me to enjoy throughout the year.

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