Category Archives: writing

Rediscovering the pause button

(Image courtesy of 1982 Atari 5200 ad)

(Image courtesy of 1982 Atari 5200 ad)

We now live in a world where social media is a 24/7 construct; for good or ill, many of us feel like we must be connected, must be on, all the time. It’s like we can’t turn ourselves off. It’s like our pause button is broken.

But for the sake of our mental health, our ability to prioritize, our sense of perspective, we need to remember to pause more than ever.

The pause button, like much of technology, is a recent construct. Those of a certain age probably first encountered the pause button as something to press on a tape recorder or boombox to stop the tape or the music, or to record a favorite song off the radio (waiting for the DJ to pause talking).

A 1982 ad for the Atari 5200 gaming console gave us our first look at the pause button for a real-time progressing activity, also using it as a unique selling proposition. A young man is in the middle of playing Pac-Man (which many of us spent a lot of time doing back then) when his mother (presumably) calls into the room: “Telephone! It’s Judy!” A sly smile creases his face and he hits the pause button which was mind blowing to us the first time we saw it! Of course, the idea of our teen dream actually calling us was far-fetched, but this feature was awesome.

The pause button persisted through VCRs and DVD players and you can now even pause live TV. What we can’t do as easily is to pause ourselves. To stop checking social media. To stop worrying if we’re missing anything. To stop and see a bigger picture.

I’m as bad at this too, but I’ve been trying. I took vacation over the holidays, and even (this sounds pathetic but it’s progress) watched movies on Netflix without worrying about emails or social media and didn’t check my phone compulsively when trying to get to sleep. And you know what? The world didn’t end; 2017 arrived. I realize it’s what I should do. And need to continue doing. The pause is good for all of us. If my adorable son asks me to pause what I’m doing to play with him, he perhaps knows our priorities better than I do.

Having a nose to the grindstone keeps us from seeing sunsets, seeing sunrises and seeing the stars. Micromanaging moments keeps us from spending time in better ways. It is, to paraphrase an old Coca-Cola ad, our pauses that refresh us. Musical scores are made of beats and rests (or pauses, if you prefer) … each makes the other more effective.

So please join me — and remind me — in pausing more in 2017. Let’s stop and eat lunch with other humans instead of wolfing it down at our desks. Let’s take a walk when the weather is nice. Let’s read real books and write our stories and laugh a lot during these pauses. Let’s bring back the importance of the pause button.

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How losing a job 25 years ago made me a better person today

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I got laid off from my first professional job 25 years ago (give or take a few days). It seemed crushing back then, but ultimately it was a needed wake-up and “grow-up” experience.

The recent trend of posting #sevenfirstjobs (or #7firstjobs?) has been a great reminder of the number of grunt and entry-level jobs many of us worked before finding our paths. But it also reminded me of how what seemed like a dream job got away at the time.

In spring 1991, I was hired to be the office manager of the Sterling Renaissance Festival. The fest was not just a business or attraction, but where I grew up — I spent summers there since I was 9 years old because my mother was a craftsperson there. (Maybe one day she’ll let us build a website for her woodworking business, The Wooden Unicorn.) I did a little bit of everything there over my summers, from fetching thrown objects and knocked-down bowling pins at games to running the Ladder of Truth for four years (helped pay for college!).

So when the owners, who I’d known since I was but a wee nipperkin, interviewed me and offered the job, I was ecstatic. I could use my communication skills in a variety of promotional and administrative ways to help a business I grew up loving.

But it’s not always simple when you’re new out of college and at a place that was long your playground. I was immature, I didn’t have the best attitude and my work wasn’t as good as it should have been. My boss, one of the owners, expressed disapproval but I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have and did not level up accordingly.

One morning toward the end of the season, my boss asked me to sit down for coffee and let me know I would not be renewed for the off-season and next season. At the time, I was rather heartbroken. I worked out the rest of the season and my last day was my birthday. (Happy? Not so much.)

It’s not you, it’s me

At first, I did what many an angry young man would and blamed them for what had to be a mistake. But as weeks of unemployment stretched into months, the truth set in: I should have done a better job. I should have had a better attitude. I should have taken it all more seriously.

Rest assured, that when another special-events job that I really wanted came along — publicity coordinator for Oswego’s Harborfest — I was ready. I went all-out in applying. I didn’t have a news release sample (since my background was more journalism that PR), so I took a risk: Instead of a cover letter, I wrote a news release (“Tim Nekritz applies for Harborfest job”) with the credentials I’d put in a cover letter. I figured it would either get me an interview or tossed aside as too weird.

I got an interview. It went pretty well.

They offered the job to somebody else. She quit after one day.

Then they offered the job to me. I said “yes!” (I had to stop myself from screaming “yes!”)

Work is serious, but fun

I read up on public relations as much as I could and learned a lot about PR on the job, as fortunately the organization had board members and volunteers who were willing mentors because they saw I (now) had a work ethic and a desire to learn. I did not want to let this job slip away, and promised myself I’d be more professional, responsible and responsive to criticism. The learning curve and workload were challenges, but I made it through the first season (as a part-timer) and they offered me a full-time job.

A key lesson is that work is, well, work and requires a serious attitude. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun — it was a very fun job! — but that you have to produce, be part of a team and (if you’re lucky) do what you can to make the people around you better.

I learned and grew as much as I could and seven years later, now with expanded responsibilities as Harborfest’s public relations and marketing director, chose to return to my beloved field of journalism to become arts and entertainment editor of the Palladium-Times. I felt like a different person leaving the job than taking it, having matured and learned and realized every day was an opportunity to grow.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I mustered the maturity to get retained at the Sterling Renaissance Festival. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone down the path to where I am today. I certainly wouldn’t have learned many of the things I have. Two roads diverged about 25 years ago, and what seemed awful at the time actually paved the way toward many awesome opportunities.

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Goodbye Garrison Keillor: A lesson in the power of with.

Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).

Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).

“It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown …”

Garrison Keillor said those words one last time on Saturday night before signing off of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a show he has helmed in some form or another since more than 40 years ago. The show didn’t just unexpectedly gather multimillions of fans from coast to coast but helped reinvigorate a whole medium. In the words of colleague Scott Simon on NPR, “all of us who share this sliver on the radio spectrum know we wouldn’t be in business if Garrison Keillor hadn’t made a new thing called public radio truly sing.”

So Keillor’s last show bears its share of symbolism as it stood amidst a shifting landscape. Just as Keillor passes the torch to talented young musician/composer Chris Thile, so too has the transition from an odd little local variety show to a worldwide phenomenon taken us from a cold war and national malaise and a radio medium looking to stay vital to the age of the Internet and a world where the audio medium is as hot as ever through podcasting.

Keillor himself took the occasion of the final broadcast, as he always has, to put over a younger generation of talent. The performance featured duets with five talented women: Sara Watkins (a former guest host and bandmate of Thile in Nickel Creek), Sarah Jarosz, Aiofe O’Donovan, Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo. Watkins got to sing “One Last Time,” a song on her just-released album, and joined Jarosz and O’Donovan in work they do as a trio called I’m With Her.

And “with” is probably the best preposition to explain Keillor’s appeal: He performs with his guests, house musicians and comic players, and has as much fun as anybody. He shares greetings from the studio audience with the world. He brings us with him into the fictional small town of Lake Woebegon, until we can smell the coffee in the Chatterbox Cafe and see the aisles of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. And he laughs with his characters and the world, not at them.

Keillor and this show have a special relationship with our family, as we would gather to listen and laugh and love the music. It almost seems outmoded now, as today parents and kids all have their own smartphones and tablets and TVs and their own fragmented entertainment, yet there we were, our mom and various combinations of three sons, brought together by this tall, awkward stranger and his friends via the radio airwaves.

We also grew up in a small town that could have been, for all intents and purposes, Lake Woebegon. Weedsport, N.Y., a town of less than 2,000, is bigger than Keillor’s imaginary Minnesota hometown, but it had everything else — a rural setting, an ongoing struggle for identity and families who knew one another for generations. His stories felt like they could have happened on our streets .. or on the streets of many a small town. Popular culture highlighting a small town in a humbly celebratory light was rare then (and still is), so us small-town folks take a certain pride; Keillor is, in a way, one of our own who made good.

Many of these blog things talk about what we can learn from somebody’s success, and true to form, here are three things Keillor teaches us:

1. The power of storytelling. Those of us who work in communications speak of (and sometimes present on) the power of storytelling, and Keillor was a master of craft, character and consistency. Creating Lake Wobegon from scratch is an amazing accomplishment — so just think of the storytelling we can do with real people! Radio might be the best pure modern manifestation for storytelling. We hear words and inflections and fill in the blanks with the theater of our minds. No different than tales told over fires to friends about legends of old, or to our tucked-in children with powerful, positive lessons. Podcasting is simply radio on demand, and “Serial” becoming one of the biggest recent phenomena in any medium shows the audio storytelling format remains as potent as ever.

2. Generosity. His cohorts are not as famous as Keillor, but that’s not because he tries to upstage them. Quite the opposite. In his final show, Keillor made sure to give particular spotlight to longtime companions like versatile voice actor Tim Russell and sound-effects maestro Fred Newman. He gave pianist and musical director Richard Dworsky his own shine, and has always been the #1 fan of his house band in whatever combination they are (Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band remains my favorite). He let the voices of the aforementioned five talented women take up nearly as much time in his farewell show as his own familiar baritone.

3. Community. Long before Facebook or email or the Internet, Keillor created a community all his own. And I’m not even talking about Lake Wobegon — he created a very real community with fans everywhere who could fall into warm discussion of the show, their favorite sketches, the most memorable songs. Moreover, his stories were about universal themes — love and loss, striving for acceptance, family relations and wanting to do better. The community he created formed a rising tide that helped lift then-fledgling public radio into the national cultural consciousness, and NPR remains a community — virtual and otherwise — that connects people with information, with ideas and with a world beyond themselves. Not bad for a shy English major.

And so we say goodbye to Keillor and to his familiar hometown of Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average. The whole experience has been far, far above average. We are all better from the time with this imaginary place and with all of Keillor’s encouraging words.

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top 15 albums for 2015

This was a pretty good year for music, but what’s most intriguing is how discovery of new music evolves. The superabundance of music dissemination makes it both easier and harder to get into new music than the days we relied on terrestrial radio. Easier because you don’t have to look far to find new music; harder because, as Hicks’ Law posits, the more options you encounter the harder it is to make a decision (trying a new artist on Spotify, for example, is an investment in time that may or may not lead to an investment in money). This year’s top records came to my attention via a mix of avenues that included crowdfunding sites PledgeMusic and Kickstarter (I backed three songs on the list), free music/promotional site Noisetrade, NPR, co-workers and my friends in the Higher Ed Music Critics (read our aggregate reviews on the blog).

But now, on with the countdown …

15. Tom Cochrane, Take It Home. Yes, the Canadian singer-songwriter has continued recording long after “Life is a Highway” became a huge hit. And his records are consistently good.

14. Humming House, Revelries. With a range of influences spanning classic folk and bluegrass to Django Reinhardt, Humming House creates wildly danceable music that defies easy categorization.

13. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free. The former lead singer of Drive-By Truckers continues to make a name for himself with smart songwriting and vibrant vocals.

12. Brandon Flowers, The Desired Effect. If the lead singer of The Killers released an album reading the phone book, I’d buy it. This is much better than that, but it wasn’t even the best solo record by a member of his main band.

11. Seth Avett + Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. A very good but also polarizing album, as some Smith superfans took affront to somebody recording the late legend’s songs. If you can get past the reworkings, this is a fine record.

10. Tia Brazda, Bandshell. A Canadian singer playing throwback music with a pin-up aesthetic — what’s not to love about that sentence? Some solid brassy jazzy work here, although it feels a bit more restrained than it could be for this rising star.

9. The Damnwells, The Damnwells. One of the pioneers of crowd-funding music, Alex Dezen and his merry band continue to ride the wave of fan support via PledgeMusic to create catchy pop-rock gems.

8. Everclear, Black is the New Black. Yes, that band. After a healthy hiatus, Alex Alexakis and mates went into the studio for this Kickstarter-backed project. Everclear doesn’t skate by on nostalgia entirely, creating a record that fits into its catalog but also pushes it forward.

7. Big Talk, Straight In, No Kissin’. Who’da thunk that Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. would have arguably the most impressive solo career among its talented members? Another PledgeMusic crowd-funded record, this shines in its own way in sounding not so much like The Killers as it does the best years of The Cars.

6. Ryan Adams, 1989. It sure sounded like a joke when Adams said he planned to record a new version of Taylor Swift’s mega-bestseller. But this record takes the overproduced source material and pulls out a whole new feel, Swift’s layers and effects replaced by Adams channeling vocals recalling ’80s U2 and Springsteen with heartfelt delivery.

5. Butch Walker, Afraid of Ghosts. Walker recording an album produced by Ryan Adams sounds like fantasy booking, but it’s real and moving. Drawing from the grief of losing his father, Walker records an exceedingly poignant disc with some of his most impressive songwriting and singing to date.

4. Matthew Good, Chaotic Neutral. Good continues his run of crafting political and metaphorical melodies that alternately constrict and soar (while winning award for most D&D-fan-friendly title of the year). It’s his customary serving of intense and catchy music, but the relative predictability of his last few records is what keeps them in the very good category but short of the greatness last seen in his stunning Hospital Music.

3. Pokey LaFarge, Something in the Water. It’s refreshing to see so many artists like The Wiyos, Old Crow Medicine Show, the aforementioned Brazda and Humming House plus LaFarge taking an interest in throwback sounds of almost a century ago. LaFarge is especially successful because his music is so fresh and fun with far-ranging appeal; the band would be equally at home on A Prairie Home Companion and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

2. American Aquarium, Wolves. This Southern rock and blues and soul band came about a finger of whiskey away from disbanding after their previous album, but fan support made BJ Barham and friends decide it was worth continuing. The resulting album shows clever songcraft depicting growing up and settling down in “The Losing Side of 25,” “The Man I’m Supposed To Be” and “Rambling Ways.” Album closer “Who Needs A Song?” is one of the best lyrically of 2015: “Who needs a road if I’ve got you, babe?/How long can you be a rolling stone?/Who needs a road if I’ve got you babe?/The only thing I need right now is home.”

1. Frank Turner, Positive Songs for Negative People. The British punker turned punk-rocker turned punk-pop rocker turned pop-rock troubadour continues his evolution as a gent who just plain crafts masterful, memorable tunes. He delivers uplifting anthemic energy in the back-to-back punch of “Get Better” (“We could get better/Because we’re not dead yet”) and “The Next Storm” (“Rejoice/Rebuild/The storm will pass”) but the highlight could be the sad extended metaphor of “Mittens”: “I once wrote you love songs/You never fell in love/We used to fit like mittens/But never like gloves.” Fortunately, everything fits together spectacularly to make this the best album of 2015.

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Customer service: even technology can’t replace a good attitude

ariushat

This is currently my favorite hat, and not just because Arius looks adorable in it. This hat is a reminder that you don’t need oodles of technology and listening strategies to provide good customer service — sometimes all you need is the right attitude.

With Arius’ birthday coming up and also needing to update his wardrobe, I made a recent Saturday trip to the Great Northern Mall (and its outbuildings) and engaged in consumer activity. When I got home and unpacked the bags, I noticed that one item I bought at the Children’s Place was not in its bag. I wasn’t sure if I’d dropped the hat or lost it in the shuffle and while it wasn’t all that expensive (because they have great bargains), I was a little bummed.

But.

Then I checked the answering machine to my landline (which gets little action beyond robocalls) to find a message there from the Children’s Place. I’m a member of their rewards club, so an associate called that number apologizing profusely that the hat somehow didn’t make it into the bag.

While I wasn’t sure what could be done — Great Northern is out of town and not something I visit every day — I called back, and the associate offered to mail it. She apologized that it may not be there immediately because that Monday was a postal holiday (Columbus Day) but I responded that as long as it made it to Oswego before it was too cold (insert expected weather joke), I’d be happy. Lo and behold, the package was waiting on the porch when Arius and I got back from daycare on Tuesday.

I’ve worked retail and I know it’s not always a barrel of fun, especially as the holidays approach. With any transaction and follow-up, there are any number of break points where somebody has reasons not to provide added service, let alone go the extra mile. Yet consider this associate:
1) Realized the packing error
2) Looked up my phone number
3) Found time to call
4) Cheerfully took my return call
5) Suggested mailing it (taking on additional duties and expense)
6) Mailed it right away

If you don’t think that kind of customer service is extraordinary, then you probably haven’t been shopping lately. I commend the Children’s Place for empowering this kind of service and for following all the way through. The store now ranks even higher on my future shopping list.

Now we’re just hoping Arius won’t actually need the winter hat for a while, but if he does, seeing him in it will remind me that simple, good old-fashioned customer service is alive and well.

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Why I’m deleting ‘no cellphones’ from my syllabus

When I started teaching Media Copywriting in fall 2005, the syllabus included a simple “cellphones should not be seen nor heard” line in it, with accompanying mini-lecture in class, that has remained. Until now.

tweetsStarting this semester, I’m fine if students use smartphones in class. I even hope they sometimes use them during class.

It’s a trend popping up other places, acknowledging smartphones as participatory instruments. I’ve never been a big fan of the classroom as one-way lecture megaphone. Yet the establishment position among academia resisted the inclusion of laptops and personal devices in classes. But we’ve long since reached a point where, to borrow a great line from education expert Mark Greenfield: “The question is no longer whether laptops belong in lecture halls, but whether lecture halls belong in universities.”

Consider this: My intern Alyssa (of Alyssa Explains It All fame) takes notes on her iPhone. At an astonishing rate, no less. It takes my stubby, uncoordinated fingers minutes to write a text, yet today’s students like Alyssa could compose a short essay in that time. Who are we to discriminate on what media they use for note-taking?

But smartphones can be worked into feedback and learning as well. I’ve previously given homework assignments asking students to tweet examples, responses and opinions — often with video links — on the #brc328 tag to set the tone for the next class. Why not ask them to tweet in class in response to questions or to use it as another regular feedback and discussion channel?

I’m not saying the first semester doing this won’t be a bit sloppy, and that it won’t require fine-tuning. Will students abuse the privilege and not pay attention while playing games or whatever on their smartphones? Maybe. Their loss. If they aren’t paying attention in class or taking good notes, it becomes apparent after a while and the consequences come naturally in their ability to do assignments and pass the test. I’m giving them responsibility and seeing how they use it. From my experience, I expect students to respond accordingly and receive the grade they deserve.

In any event, I’ll let you all know how it goes.

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Higher ed getting iTuned, and customer service’s role.

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In 2000, Apple’s release of iTunes revolutionized the user experience in music and marked the beginning of the end of record companies’ outmoded model of complete control of recordings. Could a similar shift — decoupling content from a long-established distribution method — do the same thing to higher education? Poor customer service by not treating or students and stakeholders  like important parts of the equation could speed us down this path.

If you bought music before the turn of the century, you did so totally on the terms of record companies. You’d hear a good song and either could buy the single (with a B-side that was usually a throwaway track) or, if you were like most consumers, pay $16.99 or some inflated price for a CD or album. Maybe the album was great, perhaps another decent track or two helped you rationalize the purchase, or the rest of the album could be junk. Chances are you couldn’t listen to the album to know for sure, so you shot blindly and hoped for the best. Musicians were almost completely at the mercy of record companies, signing exploitative contracts that Steve Albini ably covered in the eye-opening essay The Problem With Music.

iTunes changed all that. You could listen to samples of all the songs on the album and, if they were all killer/no filler, buy the whole album. If everything outside of the single sounded awful, you could just download the track you wanted for 99 cents — saving time, expense and mental anguish. Some record companies battled this development, but the power and partnerships of Apple meant they brought enough players to make the model viable … and those on the outside could only hold out for so long. In the succeeding years, the tide has turned as bands have created their own distribution models, the most radical in 2007 involving Radiohead releasing “In Rainbows” online and allowing consumers to pay what they wanted. Today, many bands use models such as Kickstarter and PledgeMusic where fans fund their recordings and help mold the musical experience.

In all the discussion of massive online open course (MOOC) education, the hope, hype and hyperbole converge to paint a potential picture not unlike iTunes for the future of higher education. In the best-case scenario, MOOC promoters see a world where consumers are in charge of where, what and how they learn, with some body, alliance or institution aggregating the courses taken into some kind of credential or degree. Courses, professors and colleges become commodities where the best offerings attract students while market forces marginalize inferior professors or obsolete coursework.

And while some critics seem exceptionally gleeful about the end of the higher ed world as we know it, I don’t buy into all the doom and gloom. College is about growth, self-discovery and independence perhaps morseo than the credential. The world will always have parents who will want their kids to get an education and take on greater self-sufficiency (read: move out of their house and learn how to do laundry). Every semester, I write an article about what our students are doing after graduation and things like internships, learning to work in teams and getting involved in campus leadership roles come up over and over as helping them get jobs. The current college climate can still provide a superior environment for success. But …

… and it’s a big but: Colleges that do not provide good customer service for students and potential students will dig themselves the biggest holes. Perhaps even graves. If you work at a college and don’t realize that poor customer service has caused you to lose students, and is making some other students consider transferring, you’re living in a fantasy. If you don’t care about it, you’re part of the problem. Sure, admissions offices may be great at getting students in the front door, but subsequently treating students as numbers instead of humans will end up a negative on your enrollment balance sheet. Just as the record companies didn’t foresee or address the conditions of a market where consumers are in charge, colleges that value a position of power over students instead of a partnership approach will face an uphill climb as student mobility becomes ever greater.

Brace yourself: The future is coming. Fortune favors those who adapt, and who realize emerging models will place a greater priority on serving and satisfying students. When consumers can shop around more, the market favors those with the best goods and services. How would your college fare?

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