Photo source: http://obstacleracingmedia.com

Together: An Essay of Tough Mudder, the Eclipse and a Tragedy

Image credit: Obstacleracingmedia.com

It started, quite honestly, with an off-the-wall idea, not the first one I’ve had with this longtime friend.

“We should do a Tough Mudder.”

Neither of us was in peak, or even great, physical shape, but one of us had done a few similar events, and the other had completed a half triathalon.

We both decided the Tough Mudder was a little bit scary, which, true to form, made it more appealing. We opted for the five-mile version, which seemed reasonable and still challenging.

Six months later, after countless runs, workouts, and videos watched, we joined thousands of others at a sprawling racetrack in central New Hampshire to test ourselves.

Neither of us knew what to expect.

I, certainly, never expected how much it would affect me.

TOUGH MUDDER

What transpired over the next several hours left a mark. Not only on my body, but on my outlook toward life and the challenges I face.

Some disclosure first.

It needs to be said upfront that Tough Mudder isn’t some benign social movement but, rather, a business and a marketing success story. It’s a physical manifestation of countless approaches to self-care that drive home the point that we have wildly untapped power within us.

I think it’s also fair to say it’s an escapist event for those with the privilege to indulge in it. The entry and assorted fees are not insignificant, more than a full day of work if you make minimum wage, and it’s well worth noting that within living memory, there was a time when something like it could not happen in our society. Countless people suffered—truly suffered, not the kind of suffering we experienced on the course—to allow all of us the privilege to participate together as one group. I don’t intend to make it seem, and it should not be implied, that the event is some social panacea, an afternoon of sweat that undoes everything else around us in this day and age. It isn’t.

And while Tough Mudder doesn’t particularly play up this particular angle, many other similar runs do focus on the military nature of their obstacles, implying subtly that it’s like going through the rigors of a warrior’s life. It isn’t that, either.

What it is, though, is truly amazing.

I cannot think of another lived experience that featured so much communal work and reward, with so many different types of people. Rarely in my daily life have I experienced so many slices of society as in the mud. It wasn’t a representative cross section of America by any means, but the Mudders I saw were a pretty eclectic group: young, old, all body types and abilities, and I presume a wide range of backgrounds, religions, political views and ideologies, working together toward a common goal of taking another step forward on the course, then another, to completion.

I expected pride in finishing. I didn’t expect pride in simply being there. The Mudder Oath, which we all took as a group, was a touchstone for a life well-lived: Help those who need it. Put others’ needs before your own. Don’t whine. Tackle the things you believe you can’t. Life is not a race toward the end, but a challenge to overcome your fears. Those fears will appear daunting and insurmountable and, often, when you have nothing left in you. No one can do it alone.

In the mud, like in life, little else matters but these ideas.

The course was painful, like life itself. Over obstacles higher than we thought we could scale, in disgusting muddy water up to our necks, with legs, lungs, hearts and muscle straining, we pulled each other through. No one asked who you voted for before lending a hand. No one pondered if the person next to them was worth their trouble; they were. No one forced or shamed us to help each other. Arms, legs, shoulders, bodies and words were freely offered to each other for support. My proudest moments were not when I overcame an obstacle—and I overcame every one with the group’s help—but when I helped others do the same.

It was a fantasy world, for sure. When we finished, we got our finisher t-shirt, headband, and beer, deservedly patted each other on the back, took some pictures, made some social posts, then got in our cars and drove back into our realities.

But if it’s a fantasy, it’s one I’d happily live in. It’s one I’m extremely proud to have finished. It’s one I will certainly indulge again. It’s one of the few moments in my adult life when I looked across a diverse crowd and felt…together.

In this vulgar, contentious day and age, it felt charmingly right.

A TRAGEDY

After a celebratory lunch outside of Boston, we returned to the parking lot where I’d left my car that morning, said goodbye, and made our respective ways home.

As I got on the highway, traffic stalled and then stopped almost immediately. A wall of lights flashed ahead. For a generally impatient person, traffic is frustrating. Add in mud, soreness and a long drive, and it’s over the top. I thought back to the Mudder Oath, and its “I will not whine. Kids whine.” provision.

The helicopter swooped down onto the blocked highway so quickly that it took a moment for the brain to process what was happening just yards ahead. This clearly wasn’t just a minor accident—the highway was now closed, in both directions. Car engines were turned off, windows rolled down, and slowly people opened their doors and got out onto the pavement.

We had nothing in common other than being stuck here, in a random spot on a random highway in a random town. Some left. A junky sedan and a luxury SUV were the first I saw to hit the grass and try to backtrack against stopped traffic to reach the previous exit. Perhaps someone was in labor. Perhaps someone just didn’t want to wait.

The rest of us talked and watched and, if they’re like me, pondered the costs of having one more bite at lunch, or one fewer joke with a friend, and being that person loaded onto the helicopter instead of a spectator, just by a sheer luck of timing.

The driver to my right railed on about aggressive drivers and did everything short of blaming the accident victim for society’s ills. To my left, a guy whom I learned worked in Manhattan talked weather with a young person with a Red Sox shirt and a neck tattoo. We marveled at how polite most people were…clearly those before us had let many emergency vehicles through, and there were now dirty looks given to the cars who set off on their own. Mostly, we looked on in awe at the fast and fluid motions of brave life-savers as they went about their business. The chopper loaded up, lifted off and soared over our heads. The conversations stopped, everyone returned to their cars, and we all set out on our myriad ways, rolling by a tangled heap of metal that had inadvertently and tragically brought together strangers.

THE ECLIPSE

If the Tough Mudder was togetherness by choice, and the tragedy was togetherness by random happenstance, the 2017 eclipse was togetherness in the context of our insignificance.

Astronomy is a humbling hobby. The vastness of the cosmos exceeds our tiny brains’ ability to ponder it. However, it can sometimes seem so removed from our life as to be disconnected. A supernova, for instance, one of the most powerful forces in nature, is merely a new and temporary dot in the sky. We can’t even see black holes. For most people, most of the time, astronomy is just something scientists study, nothing easily accessible to them in any dramatic fashion.

What I loved about the eclipse was that it was a stark reminder of the forces so much larger than ourselves or our species. We are, to quote Sagan, a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. A small moon momentarily moved in front of a small star, and the most powerful nation that’s ever existed was darkened, humbled and awestruck.

Together, we looked up at forces that we couldn’t control if we tried.

Together, we saw our source of life blotted out.

Together, we shared our experiences and our awe.

And, if we chose to think about it, together we could see with very little effort how completely fleeting and meaningless our existence is, and incongruently, how important our choices are in the brief journey of life.

THE CHOICE

My point to these three stories is that, ultimately, we all have choices every time we act. We choose to be helpful, divisive or inward-focused. We choose our tribe, our actions and our fates. We can choose to acknowledge differences, brought about by our respective lived experiences that no one else can understand, or we can imagine others are governed purely by irrational thought. We can choose to be humbled by life, or not.

We all have different frameworks around our choices, those frameworks limit our choices, we don’t have an equal set of choices or frameworks, and sometimes there are no good choices. But there’s always a choice. Always.

You can choose to help or you can walk by. You can choose to wait for others or you can believe you are more important. You can choose to understand your own cosmic insignificance or you can think you are bigger than it all. You can choose to tackle your obstacles or you can not.

And we can choose to be together, with all the good and bad it brings. Or not.

In the lexicon of Tough Mudder, there are “No Excuses.” That day on the course, every step, every hurdle, I had to examine the excuses that popped into my mind and mentally move beyond them.

I’ve since been struck by how often I think about my excuses elsewhere, at work, in life, as I go about my day. Excuses are easy. They can easily drive my choices if I let them.

What are yours? And why?

And what’s our role together?

Light

A joy of working in marketing is the chance to be creative, and I’m exceptionally proud of a series of new commercials that a talented team of professionals put together. It’s incredible to watch this process unfold, moving from child-like sketches of concepts to 30 seconds of “Hollywood” at the end. I think there’s a fascination of this among the general public; the ‘making of’ features bundled with movies give testament to it. It’s as if we want to see how the magician pulls the rabbit out of the hat. I never feel diminished joy in seeing the artistry behind video production, though. Rather, I feel a sense of awe.

This year’s commercials were shot by our trusted advertising agency, GO, with a crew that we’ve used before, so there was a certain degree of comfort involved. However, the day of shooting is always a draining process, starting before dawn and going until it’s done. Stuff goes wrong, you get in each other’s personal space a lot, the varnish comes off a bit, and because of the time and money involved, you all give everything for every second of film to count. There’s mumbled swearing, hopefully not much breakage, and a lot of coordinated and uncoordinated movement.

One of the professionals we hired was the lighting director, Chris.

Some analogies with light are easy. You light your own darkness in life. Sunshine makes the best disinfectant. Those are all true, but the beauty in light to me isn’t the power, but the subtlety. You can see it in Chris’s work and all around us.

I’m a morning person. I love to get up before dawn, make some coffee and watch the sun rise. My son and I recently camped, which I always appreciate but my sleep doesn’t. I’m dirty and uncomfortable and restless all night and almost always awake long before the sunrise. On this particular morning, I watched the eastern sky gradually change from dark blue to hues of red to a truly spectacular orange, pink and red mosaic. Photographers call this the golden hour, when the sun is low, soft and filtered through a thick layer of atmosphere.

Then, in the span of just a few seconds, the show is over and the sky bright from our star 93 million miles away.  The earth turns some more and the sun is risen, beating down with brilliance.

Chris’s work had that mix of brute force and subtlety. The brute force is the easy part. We shot the commercial’s last scene after sunset, in a glass-walled lobby, but we needed the room to be lit as if it were day. You throw enough wattage on something and you’ll re-create daytime. But the artistry and handiwork came in the tweaking; his constant adjustments to ensure the light was balanced, the right temperature, the right diffusion, coming from the right direction, with just the right amount of power.

He’d walk into a room that would appear to be your average space, make a few adjustments, pull out a few bulbs, add a few of his own, and the scene was transformed. Over the last few years, I’ve seen him in the pouring rain, balancing a giant light coming into the windows 15 feet off the ground to recreate full sun, or up on a table, removing a hanging light fixture altogether. In between adjustments, he’d hover over the monitor that showed the camera’s view, coordinating with the rest of the team and critically eying light in a way that seemed to be from the perspective of another dimension. It was awesome to witness, in the same way that it’s awesome to watch a craftsman make something out of wood, metal or material.

His professional world is fake and real at the same time. He manipulates the power that surrounds us, warms us, allows us to live, and reveals beauty, and he is also very much a person who gets his hands dirty, a trait I admire from my time outdoors and my own work experiences. At one point, as the crew tried to resolve a technical issue with the digital equipment, someone asked if he had any suggestions. He shrugged, said, “I don’t know. I deal in light, mud, rocks and rain,” pulled up his hood, and went back outside to check on rain-drenched gear.

In the end, the team made the magic. The camera operator, producer, director, actors, and technicians pulled off fourteen hours of work, grabbing twelve scenes at seven locations in two towns, which was all sent off to post-production, where another set of professionals worked on it for weeks. Thousands of minutes of work turns into fewer than two that the public actually sees. Chris and the team moved on to the next job. Maybe a huge rock concert, as was the case last year. Maybe an infomercial. Everyone needs light.

There were multiple lessons in that exhausting day. There’s craftsmanship all around us when we look. There’s beauty in natural light. There are countless subtle changes we can make to improve what we see in any situation. Brute power reveals—but experience adjusts the revelation of—the good and bad in everything.

And, sometimes, just like in camping, we should understand that great things can be seen through the lens of some sweat, light, mud, rocks and discomfort.

On Daring, Winning, and Losing

Originally posted on LinkedIn (February 5, 2015).

I did not know of Henry Worsley before last week, but it’s been difficult to get him out of my mind since. He died on January 24, just 30 miles short of his goal but after traversing more than 900 miles of Antarctica on foot, seeking to honor his inspiration, famed explorer Ernest Shackleton. Worsley was much more than an explorer, it turns out. He was a philanthropist, raising money for wounded soldiers. He was also himself a combat-decorated warrior, rising to the elite of the British special forces and spending a career on the knife’s edge.

Days after his passing, NASA observed a day of remembrance for their own explorers, the astronauts lost in the 1967 Apollo launchpad fire and on shuttles Columbia and Challenger. As someone who has always looked up, I was moved and impacted by the memories. I was there when Challenger launched on an earlier mission in 1983, carrying another explorer, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

A few weeks before Worsley’s passing, musician, actor and artist David Bowie left us.  It’s hard to define where my love of space—and my love of words—ends and where Bowie’s music begins. It’s equally hard to imagine that in a lifetime of writing, I’ll ever be able to create something that sums up living as well as the final verse of my favorite Bowie song:

And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night /
And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves /
This is our last dance. This is ourselves. Under pressure.

There is not much logically tying Worsley, the astronauts and Bowie together. There is no peer comparison to them, and I’m not trying to equate a rock star, astronauts and a warrior. They each can stand on their own merits. We are poorer for the loss of all.

However, while there’s not an equality between them, I think there actually is a connection of sorts, and it’s from the motto of Worsley’s unit, the Special Air Service.

Qui audet adipiscitur. Latin for “Who Dares Wins.”

I first heard the expression in college, coming out of a shell, finding myself. I thought it was fascinating and true. It fit where I was in my life, and over the decades, not a week goes by when I don’t think it. I’ve passed it along to friends who have asked me for advice on everything from coming out to dating to careers to life decisions. Some of them have passed it on to others. I have tried to apply it to my professional life wherever possible.  I’ve been blessed to work in environments that encouraged daring.

Life—actual experiences, not the day-to-day drudgery that makes days turn into weeks turn into months turn into years turn into decades while you blink—is about daring, isn’t it? Daring to cross that mountain, sail beyond the horizon, try something new when other things have failed, take that leap. Life is dangerous, scary. It’s easier to rest, take it easy, copy others, be part of the crowd, and we all have to do some of that some of the time. Daring is hard work. No one can do it ceaselessly or should do it thoughtlessly.

The astronauts dared, volunteering to place themselves in danger to launch into the heavens above, taking humanity’s dreams with them.

David Bowie dared, never taking the safe route in his art, always being just a little different, willing to reinvent himself, not often taking the easy path his fame and wealth could have allowed.

Clearly, Worsley dared. His whole life was “leaning forward,” running to the sound of the guns, sacrificing all for others.

Who dares wins.

Except, of course, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes, the daring causes you to be blind, short-sighted, stupid, and arrogant (or is it the other way around?). Sometimes you make that leap you shouldn’t. And people—at the very least, you—get hurt by your actions. Or worse.

Defining “wins” in terms of “accomplishing what you set out to do,” actually, you quite often don’t win. You quite often lose. But that isn’t the point, nor does it mean that you stop daring. It means you reevaluate your actions and goals, what you did, what drove it, how you can fix the harm done, and how or if you can move ahead. You are in debt to the experience and everything that got you to where you were and are, and thankful that you can even have those thoughts. You win through the learning, if you choose to.

And you move on. One ski ahead of the other, because the alternative sounds much worse.

You dare yourself. As Bowie said, you are then, in turn, dared to care about everything.

This is our last dance. Who dares wins.

 

Space and time on Isle au Haut

Astronomy is, among other things, the study of history. The light from the stars of the Big Dipper, that most ordinary of formations, take most of a human lifetime to reach us. The Andromeda Galaxy’s glow we see tonight left 2.5 million years ago, when man’s distant cousins were barely using stone tools on Earth. As we look up at the heavens, we watch history arrive at our small outpost.

The stars tell a human history, too. Mankind has used them for practical, spiritual and recreational purposes since our earliest days.

All of this history is easier to see in some places than others.

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Six miles off the coast of Maine is Isle au Haut, a rocky, forested, 12-square-mile piece of heaven. Sparsely occupied in the peak of summer, and even emptier through the brutal Maine winter, it is mostly land that is part of Acadia National Park.

For at least ten thousand years, locals have plied its waters for fish, oysters, crab, bird, lobster and seal. Its prominent hills have likely always been something of a sanctuary from the mainland, providing a lookout that scans dozens of miles and hinting at the origin of its European name: high island.

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Today, that sanctuary is from tourists. The mainland portion of Acadia taxes the patience of even the most nature-minded with its summertime crowds and congestion. Isle au Haut is empty by comparison. There are only five campsites, reserved months in advance. A small number of day hikers join campers on the daily mailboat from Stonington, Maine.

It remains an ideal lookout, of sorts. Isle au Haut, an isolated island off of one of the east coast’s least light-polluted spots, is an exceptional place to observe the heavens. I was thrilled to learn in April that my reservation request for the 2015 season was approved and my preferred dates were available, coinciding with a new moon, the darkest sky and the annual Perseid meteor shower.

My son and I spent our first day on the island hiking and savoring the persistent smell of spruce and ocean. Every trail led to incredible vistas. A nearly cloudless sky gave way to a spectacular sunset just yards from our campsite and promised exceptional astronomical viewing overnight.

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We used the day’s last light to gather, cut and split more firewood and watched the stars appear overhead, one by one. Vega was first, then Altair and Deneb, forming the classic summer triangle. We sat and talked by the fire until light turned to dark. From a passing glance up only an hour after sunset, the heavens  revealed more stars than I’d see on the darkest night at my suburban Connecticut home.

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My son turned in early, so I knocked back the logs in the fire, grabbed a blanket and my binoculars, and sought a flat spot away from the embers’ glow. I rolled up a sweatshirt for a pillow and prepared for nature’s showtime in a near-total darkness unlike any I’d ever experienced.

At home, the quest for dark observing spots leads to absurd machinations, like finding a tree or bush to visually block a streetlight, or shielding the view of the road with a trifold school project board. On Isle au Haut, it involved walking ten steps away from the campsite. My prime observing location was rewarded nearly instantly with an Earth-grazer…an almost horizon-to-horizon Perseid meteor burning up in a long trail of fire and smoke. Then another Perseid. And another.

The sky was glorious. The Milky Way cloud band, stretching up from the south, peaked overhead in Cygnus and extended across the sky. Every passing minute revealed more detail as my eyes acclimated and sky grew darker.

You can see the cloud band in Connecticut when conditions are right; I have faintly observed it along the shoreline, and brighter in the extreme northwest and northeast corners. During the great power outage of October 2011, I saw it from my normally light-polluted front yard. However, it had never looked like this. I could easily discern the Great Rift in Cygnus and the shape and structure of the band. Through binoculars, it showed pinpoints from a sea of stars, so close together it looked like a quilt of light.

Over the course of the next hour, I saw a dozen or more bright Perseids, dozens of satellites, and countless astronomical objects from my mental checklist. The North America nebula? Visible to the naked eye; I had never been able to observe it at home. Messier 101, which I’d only observed in my best telescope as a faint spiral arm? It was a clear fuzzy circle through my binoculars. Andromeda? Larger than I’d ever think I could see it, and vaguely oval-shaped even to my unaided eye.

Typically, I am task-focused when observing; I go out to find specific things. Here, the pure joy was how much I could see when I was looking for nothing.

I had, more than once, considered leaving the binoculars at home for this trip. They are image-stabilized Canons; wonderful optics, but heavy. When you carry on your back all you need to live for a few days, extra weight is judiciously chosen. The binoculars were the perfect tools, allowing for wide, sweeping scans.

Trees to the south blocked my view of the horizon and our galaxy’s dense core, so I put on my red headlamp, grabbed my phone and binoculars and headed off for a short stroll to the rocky waterfront. The tide had rolled in considerably since sunset, and what had been a fairly easy walk in the day was a cautious, slow, slippery, rock-by-rock journey once I cleared the treeline. I hugged the narrow band of shore as it curved to the west, and after climbing over one large rock formation, there it was: Scorpius, Sagittarius and the cloudlike center of our Milky Way, stretching down to the horizon.

I had only dreamed of seeing the summer Milky Way from a truly dark sky sight, and it was every bit as spectacular as I’d hoped. Now horizon-to-horizon, the cloud divided the sky in a glowing, white path.

Credit: Christopher Georgia. More information at: http://www.space.com/21146-milky-way-national-park-photo.html

Credit: Christopher Georgia. More information at: http://www.space.com/21146-milky-way-national-park-photo.html

The Milky Way is pivotal in the heritage of cultures worldwide. It’s often described as the path to the gods, and understandably so once seen in its full glory. On the rocks, with waves crashing near me and our galaxy stretched above, it was easy to imagine our ancestors in this same spot, a hundred generations prior to the Europeans, looking up with the same sense of awe as they pulled their boats up high, cooked oysters on the rocky coast and made shelter for the night.

The miles of ocean to the mainland shielded me from any nearby light pollution but also showed its threat. A small glow, probably the town of Rockland, Maine, cluttered one small part of the western horizon. It detracted from the sky only in the sense that I knew what it was.

Photo credit: Jessica Hendelman photography (http://www.jesshendelman.com)

This is NOT Isle au Haut, but IS Acadia, and very representative of the views I had. Photo credit: Jessica Hendelman photography (http://www.jesshendelman.com)

I made my way back to the campsite and returned to my blanket. There was no noise, no light, just near total-darkness and the expanse of heaven overhead. A jet or two passed by on their way to Europe, and satellites crisscrossed the night, mixed in with Perseids, none quite at spectacular as the first I witnessed. Minutes turned to half hours and then hours, and after the third startled awakening from a buzzing insect, I realized it was time for bed. I made my way to my sleeping pad and kept looking to the sky. One last look. No, another. Ok, next satellite, and then I’m done, until one particularly bright satellite caught my attention, flared up a bit and then disappeared. I took it as a sign.

I stretched my hand out to the heavens, outlining it against the cloud band in what must have looked like a feeble attempt to connect, and went to bed.

I slept soundly, a rare thing for me when camping.

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On our last morning on Isle au Haut, we took a short hike over a low ridge, surrounded by wild blueberry bushes that visitors had missed all summer. I asked my son, “If you take your kids here in 30 years, what do you think it will look like?” He thought about it for a few seconds and said, “Well, I think it will look about the same, because it’s a national park.”

That’s the right answer, for all intents and purposes. The trails across this gorgeous island will probably be about the same…maybe rerouted around erosion, or shifted by the crashing of the remorseless ocean.

The fundamentals will remain. The night sky will not.

There will never be another night quite as dark as August 13 and 14, 2015. Stonington and Rockland will always get a little brighter in the distance, one light bulb, grocery and mini golf at a time. Other towns will grow. The spread of humanity, as unwavering as the ocean, will eventually blot out the night. It may never spread fully to Isle au Haut, and it may not even change much in my son’s lifetime, but it will advance. At some point, certainly within a handful of generations, we will cover the sky nearly in full with our light.

We will call it progress, and who can argue with the spread of light, of technology, and of electricity.

That progress does not come without a cost. For all but the last 200 years, what I witnessed on Isle au Haut was all mankind understood the night sky to be. A two-million year shared experience, across cultures and continents, gone in the comparative blink of an eye.

We’ve changed the balance of nature and with it, disconnected ourselves from the glory and magnitude of the heavens. It’s only when you see the night sky in its full expanse that you realize what a tragedy it is that we can—and so thoughtlessly—erase our own history.

The good news is that the history is still plainly visible in the most humble of places if you look, including a small rocky outpost on the surface of another one, both tiny specks in a mighty sea.

campfire

 

 

 

 

Check Your Sources – Remembering John Breen

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Courtesy of the Journal Inquirer)

John Breen, professor emeritus of journalism. (Credit: Journal Inquirer)

An icon of my life died this week.

Professor John Breen of the UConn Journalism Department left us far too early but also left a trail of students honoring him in their thoughts and posts.

More than anyone I’ve ever encountered, he taught me to love words. No matter my title or place in life, I will always be a writer deep in my soul. I have struggled to find ways to honor the man. Besides the obvious (there is a scholarship established in his name at the UConn Foundation), I have decided that the natural and right way to do so is through writing.

But first, I need a drink, and so a toast to him—a glass of Irish whiskey—sits beside me.

That I feel the need for a little alcohol-induced ease of mind tells the first part of the story about why John Breen mattered.

He was uncompromising. In the days before Microsoft Word marked all of your errors in red or, even worse, auto-corrected them, John Breen accepted nothing but quality. In one of his classes, he established a rule for assignments: for every typo, you lost a letter grade. Not a circle on your paper. Not a “fix this.” No silver star for “nice try.” He assumed you cared enough about your readers that you wouldn’t insult them. I feared the man and feared my grade. The lesson I carried with me was simple: quality matters. The small things matter. Detail matters.

I partly need the calming drink next to me to even comprehend the act of writing something about John Breen, for I know that this would probably end up with a ‘C’ if he graded it. That a grown man, a professional in matters of writing, can still feel this way should tell you something.

He taught me to be cynical. That’s usually a perjorative word, but I don’t mean it in that sense. Having bombed out of the engineering program, a 19-year-old me found myself in Professor Breen’s Journalism 101 class. On the first day, he told us that to be a reporter, you had to question assumptions.

“If your mother tells you that she loves you, check your sources.”

He said that. He really said that. It’s a remarkably cynical statement, but it is also remarkably true. I don’t think he literally meant that you can’t trust your mother, but the lesson I carried from it is held deeply today.

Question assumptions.

Assume nothing.

Inquire.

Dig deep.

Check your sources.

I know it is the trend today to talk about the decline of a liberal arts education; STEM education will rule the future. There’s some truth to that, I suppose. But can there be a better lesson for life, or a better education (in the philosophical sense of the word), than “check your sources?” With more information available to us than ever, can there be a better requirement for critical thought than “question assumptions?”

Lastly, John Breen taught me the beauty and grace of words. He taught me that my writing will touch people and that there is an awesome responsibility in the act of writing about them. This doesn’t mean that, as a reporter, you should go easy on your subjects. It means you should be fair.

He was a man who seemed to me to be out of place in the modern world, even in 1990. He smoked at his desk. He used a manual typewriter. If he could have worn a fedora with a small piece of paper on the band that read “Press,” he would have. He was more or less straight out of central casting for “All the President’s Men.” With stacks of newspaper everywhere, his office space always seemed to be one poorly thrown cigarette butt from a towering inferno.

I loved that.

The world is worse without John Breen in it. Today’s journalism students—while bright, smart and so capable—are poorer than I was. He last taught me more than two decades ago, but I feel him around me every time I write something.

And although I haven’t spoken to him since the year I graduated UConn, I suddenly miss him.

Critical Thought and Astronomy

Had such a great time talking about astronomy to the 5th grade class at Plantsville Elementary School today.

Kids get the wonder of the universe easier than adults, I think, because they haven’t yet been trained to spend 90% of their days worrying about car payments, jobs, stress and all of the things that keep adults from stopping, looking up and saying, “Woooowwwww.”

I have done these presentations for three years in the Southington schools, and also have done stargazing nights at the local YMCA camp for about that same length of time.

There’s something amazing about watching a kid just GET the massive concepts that are involved with astronomy. There’s something amazing about having a kid look through your telescope, see the rings of Saturn and realize that it’s REAL. Not a video game screen, not something you see on TV, but real. That dot up there…it’s got rings when you look at it closely.

To me, the highlight of today was one particular student, an otherwise quiet girl, who raised her hand when I asked the class why Galileo’s observation of Jupiter was so important.

She said, “He saw the moons.” I told her that was right, and then asked her why that was so important. She said she didn’t know, and I said, “I think you do, if you know that he saw the moons. Why was it important that he saw moons?”

You could see she was really puzzled. I went to another kid with his hand up, who didn’t know. Finally, the girl literally jumped up and said, “I remember! It’s because if Jupiter has moons, Earth isn’t in the center of everything.” Gave her a big thumbs up and she was beaming. Truly, it was incredible.

A 5th grader comprehended something that complex so easily. It’s not amazing until you realize that thought was the basis for massive, societal understanding, just a few hundred years ago.

I got my telescope for free from a friend, who told me that the price for it was that I use it to show the heavens to kids. Every time I do one of these presentations, I think how much I truly owe him myself.

The Power of our Peers

Spent the last few days at the CASE District 1 annual conference in Boston. What an honor to be able to present the work that we’ve done at UConn with student philanthropy, and I’m so proud of the team of people who worked on it. From my co-presenter (the brains, the driver of the process and the hardest worker ever) to our data team, our background support, our talented student marketing worker, and even the group of peers who evaluated the presentation in advance…not much to say but that there is amazing talent all around me. Truly blessed.

The presentation itself went great, with one small technical hiccup at the end (curse you, PowerPoint), but the in-person reviews were positive and the follow-up questions were great. In fact, I’d say that we received more questions than any other session I had been in.

So, that was great.

It was also an incredible conference for a little “small world” experience. But, first, a little background.

About a month ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a person I did not know, who informed me that I had been recommended by someone (let’s call him David) to present at a conference in March. I didn’t know David’s name, and a quick Google / LinkedIn search revealed no obvious direct connection to him. But, I like challenges, so accepted the offer and didn’t think much more about it.

Flash forward now to the conference. I pop into an interesting-sounding session at CASE and just am blown away by how great it was. I found myself thinking, “These presenters GET IT. How awesome.” It’s about my loves…analytics, marketing, data-based decision-making, social media. Just great stuff. And then I see that it’s David co-presenting!

I introduced myself after the session and start with a sheepish admission that I don’t know how we’re connected or why he’d recommend me.

He says, “You presented in New York in 2012, right?”

“I did.”

“I was in your session, and I left there thinking, ‘Wow, UConn is doing great stuff in this area.'”

So, the presentation he gave, that I randomly stopped in for, was inspired by our very own from two years earlier.

Wow.

Wow.

The lesson is that we’re not alone in anything we do, and our peers build us up, make us who we are, and turn us into better professionals and people. We’re all in this together.

An Explosion in M82

A star just exploded nearby, in one of the galaxies in our “Local Group.” It’s all relative, of course. The galaxy, M82, is about 11.5 million light years away, so the tiny dot that is the supernova is light that left M82 right around the time the Amazon River was forming, and long before people existed.

It’s humbling to think about, which is one of the reasons I love astronomy so much. Your own life is so fantastically insignificant in the big picture that it staggers the imagination we care so much about it.

Many people think that the reason we’ve never encountered intelligent life from other planets is that supernovae like this one have wiped them all out over time. Possible, I suppose. It’s as good a guess as any I’d have. Another reason for humility at our plight here on this little rock orbiting the sun.

Big questions, but right now the biggest question for me is how many cold nights I can take looking at the supernova. I saw it tonight, and it’s clearly visible, lighting up the little blur that is M82, far brighter than all the billions of other stars in that galaxy…combined.

It’s an amazing universe, and all we need to do to see that is look up.

Leadership in the Snow

Spent the snowy weekend in the woods, working with young people on their leadership skills or, more precisely, watching them learn those skills themselves.  The formal curriculum was the Boy Scouts of America’s Introduction to Leadership Skills for Troops, but the lessons were learned as the groups worked together for the non-formal parts of the day.

And isn’t that exactly right?  Because there are a lot of “leaders” out there who sit through an awful lot of trainings like that (not to mention offer those trainings)!  And there are a lot of MBAs churned out annually. How many are truly leaders, in the sense of being able to work in a team, inspire others, and put the group above self?  Not many.  Not a huge percentage.

But what I saw in this group of 12- to 16-years olds was largely leadership. Like cooking dinner on a propane stove for their small groups, when it was snowing and their hands were cold and the wind was blowing.  Or making sure that the group assumed responsibility for cleaning the site and leaving it better than we found it. How many politicians or CEOs would do that?  Would they even call it leadership?  Would they recognize it?

And why not?  And if we answer that question, have we identified what is wrong with so many of our major societal institutions today?

It didn’t all go well. Some meals were barely meals. Some food was ruined. Some stoves took a long time. Not everyone pulled their weight. Tempers were frayed. Relationships strained.  Part of the lesson.  But, overall, I walked away impressed at what we show when we don’t know what we’re supposed to.  Leadership and integrity come when no one is looking, or when you don’t know enough to care whether someone’s looking.

Just a thought.

Student Philanthropy

My favorite work project has been our success with student philanthropy at UConn.  Part of that is because I have been able to work with some great people on the initiative, but I also love it because it highlights the eternal role of philanthropy in life.

The idea germinated from an alumnus who looked back and realized the power of philanthropy in shaping UConn, as well as the need to build a culture of giving in today’s students, who have benefited so much from the support of others.  By offering challenge matches for students, he’s encouraging them to give, and we’re helping to shape that through a competition that is really focused on allowing them to give to what matters most to THEM, not us. And that is, typically, the club or cause or program that they’re part of at UConn.

The word philanthropy comes back to its roots of meaning “the love of man,” and I cannot think of a more empowering task than educating people about how philanthropy allowed for their success and how their own philanthropy is showing their support for those who follow.  It’s all good stuff.

More info on the Ignite competition at: http://s.uconn.edu/huskydrive