Category Archives: Life

A Feature, Not a Bug: An Essay on Unruliness for the Fourth of July 

There is something profoundly American about walking to a New England town green, handmade cardboard sign in hand. Something profoundly American about not walking alone.

That day, some people had warned of violence and damage; there had been enough the weekend before in America. Neither came to be. Just a crowd, much younger than me, perfectly within their rights of self-expression and mildly unruly.

Unruliness is as American as apple pie, bald eagles, and inequity. It is baked hard into our DNA as a feature, not a bug. The deeply flawed, brave, unruly (White) geniuses who committed to “hang together or, most assuredly, hang separately” on July 4, 1776, took on the world’s most powerful empire, could barely stand each other, fumbled greatly, and somehow won, creating this new kind of nation.

In the place of an oppressive monarchy, they put a republic weighted on the side of liberty and the individual citizen over the government, and then specifically oppressed anyone but White men. These unruly upstarts guaranteed a difficult life for our nation and horrors for its citizens.

Long may our government come second to its citizens.

Long may our growth require difficult times, for they create opportunities.

Long may we remain unruly. Long may we doubt actions to make us less so.

We lost some of that unruliness during the pandemic, perhaps out of justified fear of the virus, perhaps out of manipulation, perhaps out of growing softer, perhaps a combination. But we generally gave it away without a whimper, and that’s troubling, because power doesn’t go back in the genie’s bottle easily. You can see it manifested in China right now against Hong Kong or the Uighurs. You can see it in the actions by many here: left and right, elected, bureaucrat, and “expert,” wearing blue, a suit, a lab coat. You can see it in history, ours and humanity’s. You can see it kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 8:46, hands in pockets, blankly looking at people screaming for decency. People and systems don’t give up power naturally, or consider they even have to.

Unruliness is important. Malcolm X described it as swinging instead of singing, standing instead of sitting. King said that cooling off was a luxury we can’t afford. Worthy of note that they were also two revolutionary men in the same struggle, and they hanged separately. Whites hanged them both, metaphorically, and many more, literally. To pull right from the powerful Kimberly Jones video that recently went viral, we are fortunate that Black America is looking for equality, not revenge. They’re not the only ones who are owed.

Slavery, civil rights violations, power struggles, and a forced, brutal inequity are not American inventions, nor exclusive to us or our history. But our ideals make them more painful, more of a scar. We need to be and do better toward those ideals. Progress, and I’d argue historically fast progress, is undeniable but it’s not enough. It never can be.

Because I post about politics so infrequently, some friends will be shocked I marched, or shocked to read all this. Aren’t I conservative? Oh, I sure am. Other friends will be shocked I marched, or shocked to read all this. Aren’t I liberal? Oh, I sure am.

I think for no one but me. Did I agree with everything expressed that protest night on the Southington Green, prior, or after? No, of course not. Do I always agree with parties or politicians I have voted for? No, of course not. Do you? I’m frightened if so.

I’m allowed to think for myself, the last I checked, although I do question that from time to time. It’s very likely I was the only person on the Green with a sign that spoke in terms of liberty. King said people like me “come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.”

I see no contradiction between the yings of “Molon Labe” and the yangs of belief that ”the arc of the moral universe is long, but it leads to justice. ”

I see no contradiction in having complex thoughts on complex issues. We shouldn’t fear that.

We do, though, partly because of how media and information is created and weaponized, and because it’s easy. The default.

We have to choose our buckets, I’m told. Have to strut our purity like peacocks to other people in our camp. Have to unleash an online mob on the enemy we don’t know and with whom we make no pretense of personal, actual dialogue. Shut up and comply, we’re told.

We will surely hang separately on this path. We already are.

I’m privileged in every way. Well-off. White. Male. Straight. Healthyish. Have every structural and personal advantage one could want, and so many that so many fellow Americans do not. I understand the feeling of unease at the world right now, at disruption, at change. A dear friend often shares a quote she likes: “When you’re privileged, equality feels like oppression. It’s not.”

Be unruly. Be uncomfortable. Speak face to face. Engage. Listen. Learn. Stand for a better America. Yours looks different than mine, and different from others’, and that’s OK. The marketplace of ideas should be open and free. Dialogue should be heated and uncomfortable. There should be a gut-level wariness of forced consensus, of the control of thought. Opposing views should be welcomed, considered, and debated. Your beliefs challenged. Orwell, who, with Huxley, could be the narrator of 2020, said it best. “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.”

If they’re not violating another person’s natural rights, I’ll proudly stand by any American sharing in the mix of ideas, and hope we can give the oppressed ideas the greater benefit of doubt in that intellectual marketplace. The oppressed, dangerous, unruly ideas are the ones that move us forward. Always have. The oppressed, dangerous, unruly people are the ones who do it. Always have.

There will be pain in this process. Liberty is painful. Justice is painful. Freedom is painful. Honesty is painful. Knowledge is painful. It’s also the only hope for mankind, and the spark of it all drives me. I’m a proud, unapologetic patriot for the ideals of America, and part of that means an uncompromising look at how I have contributed to and benefited from our failure to reach them.

Don’t tread on me. Don’t tread on us. Those opposed to the principles of this nation see today as a period of American weakness. It’s not. They’ll seek to take advantage of it. They’ll lose.

But we cannot walk alone through it to make that so.

So, walk.

Happy Fourth of July.

Class of 2020, We Need You!

Embrace this difficult moment, and move forward hard and engaged.

____________________

Posted by the UCONN Center for Career Development on April 22, 2020

Class of 2020 Huskies,

I do not know exactly what you’re going through. No one can; no script explains all of this right now.

What you’re experiencing is the grief of loss, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Rites of passage like graduation, the joy of being on a campus in the spring, or getting your first “real” job have meaning. Your rites of passage were snatched away at the buzzer. Mourn them hard. You’ve earned that.

But then move, equally hard and fully engaged. Because we need you. And need creates opportunity.

While I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, I do know this: if you learn to embrace loss and losing, you will discover they are the only path to growth. The obstacles in your life ARE your life.

Let me share some perspective more connected to UConn and less abstract. By any objective measure, my two degrees from UConn were horribly timed, terribly planned, and poorly executed. I nearly dropped out of my first semester with a 1.3 GPA in engineering. I changed majors three more times and earned my journalism degree just before the Internet changed everything I’d learned about the media business.John Sponauer, '92, (CLAS) ’10 MBA

I wanted to be an international reporter and studied Soviet political systems when the Soviet Union collapsed mid-class. I graduated into a recession and struggled financially. I earned my MBA later in life and was in a finance class when the markets spasmed and crashed. I graduated into a second recession, never became that reporter, and never traveled for work. 0 for 5 in the things I thought I wanted at age 21. If attaining goals or sticking to plans are measures of success, I am an unmitigated failure.

And for that, I am profoundly grateful.

My journalism degree never made me a reporter, but it taught me how to write. That skill sustained my career in countless ways. The Soviet Union died, but the ability to examine issues from multiple perspectives helped me at every job. In a dreadful business environment, the MBA opened doors to connections exactly when I needed them.

I’m privileged to have been able to fail, and I’ve learned that failure creates opportunity just as need does.

You’re privileged, too, but you’ve been dealt some really bad cards as of late. There are large, seemingly insurmountable problems in our state, nation, and world.

You have so much going for you to take them on.

First, you have us, an alumni base of 250,000 that will have sympathy for anyone with a ’20 after their name. Use our networks and use our help.

You also have a worldview centered on connections, unlike any generation prior. If you need any more evidence that we’re all connected, well… (gestures wildly all around).

Lastly, you have new ideas and energy, and we do need those right now.

I have been lucky to meet many UConn students at networking events, and I always share the same advice. I suggest making a Venn Diagram of three things: their skills, their passions, and their opportunities. Aim for the middle as the ultimate goal, but settle for any two as a step toward that middle.

You’re naturally passionate at this age. That part’s easy. It’s a tremendous gift that you should explore and nurture. Never let it wither. You’re loaded with fresh skills. Find as many uses for them as you can, like writing and analysis served me.

And that last part, the opportunities? I can’t tell you when or how, but you will find them. Maybe not always as you wanted. Maybe not as you’d planned. Like need and failure, searching will reveal opportunity, maybe where you thought it would. Maybe not.

Maybe somewhere better.

I do not know exactly what you’re going through. It’s true. But to be fair, you cannot know now all of the great things that will come.

Good luck. Go get ‘em, Huskies.

#BleedBlue

 

Share Your Strength

“We weren’t poor growing up. We didn’t have to look for coal by the railroad tracks, like some families did.”

My grandmother—of the Great-Depression-and-crushed-fascists generation—used to say this all the time, and what rolled my eyes as a teenager now seems to me to be a pretty good benchmark. These are desperate times, for sure, and while we almost certainly won’t sink to a Great Depression, that it’s even on a radar screen of remote possibilities for the first time in my life is striking.

Despite the endless histories of “the Greatest Generation,” I am of the opinion that they waited too long to tell their stories—certainly on an individual basis. They’re mostly gone now, and with them are millions of untold lessons of how to survive desperate times.

Don’t let this happen today. Tell your story, and tell it from a position of strength, because if you’re able to tell it, that means you’re still alive, and if you’re still alive, that means you’ve got strength…of health, of your personality, of your beliefs.

Write or record daily. A paragraph. A sentence or two about the most remarkable thing you saw or heard or witnessed. A 30-second video. Save them all.

My story yesterday involved a cucumber. We’re more than prepared at home with staples, but I was craving fresh vegetables, so did an off-hours grocery run. Of course, there aren’t “off hours” any more, and it was busier than I’d have preferred. I avoided people, grabbed some peppers and tomatoes, bagged some cucumbers, and headed to the register.

The bag broke, and the cucumbers fell to the ground. I swore, because that’s what I do, and a very kind older woman bent over to retrieve one.

“DON’T TOUCH IT!,” I barked, embarrassed at myself as soon as I spoke. The cucumber is on the ground, for god’s sakes, so we’re already well past the point that a woman who likely wiped her carriage twelve times is going to add to my premature demise.

She stopped, and I apologized and thanked her. She said, “Oh, I get it. Believe me.”

The register lines were crowded, so I picked a self-service one and kept my distance from a younger mom rushing to check out, the belt full of young kids’ food. The machine got an error, and a flashing light signaled for staff assistance. She started shaking. She looked back, eyes reddened and crying, and apologized.

I was chastened from my behavior earlier and said something like, “It’s no problem. We’re all in this together.”

She smiled, said thanks, and we wished each other good health as we went our own ways.

They were two very human moments in very inhumane times.

If you spend any time in nature, I mean really in nature, you know this: it is brutal and harsh and unforgiving.

As nature’s most advanced creation on this Earth, we do not have to be.

These are the stories we can tell. So tell them. Tell them to your children. Tell them to your grandchildren. Somewhere down the road, it will cause rolled eyes.

Until it doesn’t.

Until future generations look back and see solidarity, preparedness, acceptance, sacrifice, kindness, science, new thinking, and the individual actions of billions got us through 2020. We will lose too many, and we will learn so much.

We have been too slow this time. Nature’s most advanced creation is reeling from one of nature’s tiniest. Telling your story will help it be different the next time around.

Because there will be a next time around. And they will need our strength, as we need that of those before us.

 

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Keep Them Flying

“How old is this kid?”

“Older than my grandfather was in 1944.”

I didn’t intend to be a wiseass to the reporter, but these things happen, and it was also true. Standing in front of us was Rob Collings, 25, our pilot for the day, taking us on a shuttle flight between Hartford and Oxford, Connecticut in the Collings Foundation’s B-24 Liberator bomber. He is the son of Bob Collings, founder of the organization, and is, today, very likely one of the highest-hour rated B-24 pilots alive.

But this was 20 years ago–this week–standing on the tarmac at Hartford’s Brainard Airport, after a dismal, rainy Saturday had turned into a gorgeous fall Sunday. I was a new dad, an aspiring writer, and I was knee-deep in establishing a relationship with my paternal grandfather, who’d flown 50 missions over fascist-occupied Europe in a B-24. We’d almost never talked until 1999, when, meeting my daughter for the first time, he saw the news on TV and said, “Huh. We’re bombing Yugoslavia again. Some things never change.”

The following months, and later years, turned into a family history project, perfectly merging my love of words with my love of history with my love of aircraft, and that October day seemed an alignment of stars, taking a flight on the only B-24 left flying as a bomber of the more than 18,000 made.

Bob Collings had been a kind soul, hearing my story and offering a seat on the shuttle flight. I was planning to write a freelance article about the experience, and the rainy Saturday the day before had moved me to tears, connecting with dozens of veterans and families who braved the elements to see Collings’s magnificent flying machines and talk about what the aircraft meant to them.

At the time, the flight, and the overall experience of that weekend, was second only to the birth of my daughter as the most moving experience of my life.

Along with the reporter covering the planes’ visit for the local paper, I was flying with a wonderful vet named Walt, who is a volunteer for Collings and was taking his family on the flight to show them a bit of what he did over the Pacific in the war. The Collings Foundation B-17 Flying Fortress, “909,” flew in formation with us from Hartford to Oxford. It was stunning.

Soaking up the experience of men like Walt, I’d recently joined an online community of WWII bomber crew and their families, led by a kindred spirit from Texas who was also knee-deep in the connection to his own grandfather, a B-17 crewman over Europe.

Dear friends we became and remain, and also friends with dozens of “bomber boys.” Gene, John, Jim, Lloyd, and so many more. Young men who climbed into their imposing but fragile machines, gathered over their bases into metal storms of a thousand planes, and hurled themselves into a frozen hell at 25,000 feet.

Death and dismemberment greeted them at every turn, from the savagely random flak, fierce, slashing attacks of enemy fighter planes, mid-air collisions with damaged planes, bombs dropping from above, collisions in fog over their runways, mechanical failure, hypothermia, fire, smoke, falling, and more. Their pilots nursed damaged planes home for hours, missing engines, smoke trailing behind them, gashes in their metal skin, fuel leaking, cursing pain and loss around them, alone in the sky over an angry enemy. If they were lucky, they saw the next morning, but it also brought empty bunks, empty chairs, around them.

The young men, in machines made by young women, rained war onto the cities, the citizens, the machinery, the soldiers of the Third Reich, Italy, and Japan, in a way not repeated since. It was as raw and brutal combat as has ever existed in mankind’s perpetual history of combat. A total war we could not and would not replicate or tolerate today.

This mighty generation–Depression babies and young builders and warriors–today rapidly slipping the surly bonds of Earth, leaving nothing but legacies and memories.

Oh, Lloyd.

The online conversations frequently veered into politics, and into debate. Lloyd was a sharp debater, a good man, and a passionate advocate for his beliefs. He left us in early 2002.

———

Fast forward nearly two years from that day in Hartford, and to the first anniversary of 9/11.

It was a brutal time, a gut punch. So raw. So real. You randomly burst into tears during the day.

I was home in my kitchen, thinking about cleaning up after dinner but really thinking about writing something for the anniversary. I cleared the table, and my two kids were running around underfoot, doing kid things.

I wondered how I would explain this crazy world to them, and worried what they’d have ahead. Who their heroes would be. I know who mine had been: astronauts and pilots. I started thinking about how the events of the past year would look, say, 20–25 years from then. I couldn’t help but think that the guys who fought WWII came home victorious, built this country in good ways and bad, committed the whole post-war world to rebuilding, and watched 25 years later as the nation seemed to rip apart. Would my kids look back at 2001–2002 as some bygone era they never really felt? Just a chapter in history, as distant as the Romans? Would they find strength and purpose? Did we understand, as a nation, what was ahead? Could we?

I was thinking about these things, and also specifically about Lloyd and what a decent man he always seemed to be. What his generation went through. I hoped that we would be as strong and give our kids as much of an example. His death, still raw, hurt.

And the house shook.

I ran to the front door and looked out. Then up. The Collings Foundation bombers were in town, soaring low overhead, eight magnificent radial engines roaring, skin shining in the setting sun.

Lloyd was with me. So were all the bomber boys. It would be OK. We’d been through this before. We knew these times. We knew worse.

———

I don’t know any of the people on Wednesday’s doomed flight of the Collings B-17. I may have spoken to some, as I’d often seen the Collings birds on their annual stops in the fall. Got my dad to do a flight like mine. Ran in similar circles. The loss was personal and real and raw when I saw the headline and the photo of the black smoke. I checked in with people I knew close to Collings. My friend in Texas checked in with me.

I also don’t know what happened on that emergency approach to Runway 6, although I have a theory. But I can guarantee that the crew was doing what the bomber boys were doing in 1944 when their planes were hurt: everything in their power to fight Newton’s damned laws. Flying the plane through the crash, to the end. No computers. Just strength, cables, metal, and thousands upon thousands of accumulated hours of experience with their baby. There would have been no one better in the cockpit than the crew that was there. You can’t understand the passion of organizations like Collings in maintaining and flying these aircraft until you see it for yourself.

There have been calls to ground warbirds like “909” for years. They will get louder in the wake of the crash; some already have. They are misguided.

These birds are pieces of our complex history, flying museums, touching thousands of lives a year, connecting generations, connecting a nation to its past. There is no static display that can replace them. Flying on them is a visceral experience. Feeling their engines near you, imagining the two bombers times 500, to imagine what a raid looked like, to see what we did, leaves you awestruck, in the literal sense of the word.

There is a cost to keep them flying, of course. Wednesday showed us. But risk has cost. So does knowledge. So does freedom. So does laying waste to concepts like fascism. It’s worth paying.

Keep them flying.

Connections

“I’ve got 4G. Three bars.”

NO.

It was the first thought that came to mind. I saw my son looking down at his phone, as shocked as I was that on this rocky island off the coast of rural Maine, we had steady cell coverage for the first time in three visits.

“That’s unbelievable. Put it in Airplane Mode.”

“Yeah.” He agreed without even a second word.

We dropped our heavy packs and got to work, setting up camp under tall pines in a routine now familiar from years of doing it. Stake, tie, hitch, gather, chop, light, organize. Food over there. Flashlights by our sleeping pads. Lines tightened up. We wordlessly helped each other by instinct, and the two phones sat over by the fire ring while we worked.

But they were on my mind the whole time.

This changes things.

We’ve camped together since he was a toddler, but in the last five years—the last of his youth—the destinations have been more remote. Baxter State Park in northern Maine and Isle au Haut in Acadia National Park had been, previously, near-total escapes. Our trips have been exercises in getting back to basics and each other.

Long after you lose cell coverage on the drive to Baxter’s North Gate, you’re bluntly reminded by a wooden sign that help is many hours away and you are responsible for your own safety. Isle au Haut, while not as remote, is six miles off the coast, and reachable only by a mailboat that makes daily runs to the island’s small village, four miles to the north of the campsite.

Once you’re at either, it’s you and what you chose to haul in on your back. At Baxter, I learned to carry dollar bills and Post Its so that I could pay a buck to any outgoing visitor I encountered if they’d text my wife that we were safe. Trivia: all but one held up their end of the wilderness deal. People are generally good.

On Isle au Haut, there previously had been a large rock on the shore where, if you stood still for a while, you’d get 3G and one bar. Not great for anything but texting home you were safe, but that was all I’d need.

Now, with 4G, the time away would be changed. Home, world news, texts, work, emails were all there if we wanted them.

The week before we’d left, I told a colleague about the remote nature of our camping. She said, “That’s good. Get your kids off their phones.”

It’s not really that simple. I’m as guilty as anyone of being glued to my screen, and if you look around any idle crowd, it’s clear phone time is an equal opportunity distractor. They’ve got us, these companies. This technology.

We talked about it at dinner that night, Triscuits and pepperoni grilled over smoky, hot coals. The rule would be, aside from texts home that we were safe, no phone for anything but photos. I took a photo of dinner, because of course I did, proud of my perfectly charred cracker.

That ban on data lasted 45 minutes. A storm rumbled and I found I could get radar for the island.

Ok, just this one other use. Other than that, Airplane Mode.

And then the notifications popped up every time I turned data on. An acquaintance joined Duo (!). A person I don’t know would like to add me to their professional network on LinkedIn. Google asked me to review the campsite. Facebook wanted me to know a friend posted pictures of her trip. My daily activity level was reported to be excellent (Yeah, no joke, I’m almost 50 and that pack almost killed me walking uphill to the site.). Starbucks was offering a deal. Capital One let me know my breakfast that day at shore charged to my card.

Off, off, off, off their switches went in Settings, one by one, until I finally just decided they were all getting turned off. I had no idea how many apps I even had set to notify me of something.

The icons remained and I realized they still tempted. Laying on my sleeping pad that night, I moved everything social, everything news, everything but camera, phone, messages, and voice recorder to the farthest right screen, five swipes away from home. Deleted others. Made a home screen shortcut for radar. All of the rest of it…out of sight, out of mind.

And my brain changed. I lay in the dark, and what had been a low-level state of worrying about what I was missing turned into serenity.

They can’t reach me now.

I fell asleep.

I woke up and found my always-spinning brain, well, still. My phone alarm didn’t wake me, because the morning sun did. Listening to the birds, the distant sound of a lobster boat checking its traps, and the wind. A quick text home to assure that we were still alive, and back it went back into Airplane Mode and back in my pocket.

I didn’t miss it. At all. For four days.

I don’t regret keeping the radar icon. A nasty storm blew in on Day Three, and it was good to know how long we had to get back to camp and hunker down.

But other than that, what did I miss?

Absolutely nothing.

On the trip home, my son took a shift driving, I mentally prepared myself, flipped on data, and checked my apps. Dozens and dozens of posts, comments, updates flooded in. But if I’d suddenly died in the second before I checked, I’d have died no poorer.

The president said what?
How many people were killed in the accident?
We’re doing what now?
My friend really posted that?

It reinforced to me that the connection we have through our little dopamine devices is mostly fake, and mostly unhealthy. I could feel my anxiety increase, I could feel my focus to here and now fade.

After what seemed like five seconds but actually was 22 minutes, my son chimed in, “Hey what exit do I need to look for?”

I looked up. I’d been connected to the world in those 22 minutes but profoundly disconnected to what was around me. It was startling, and totally unlike the experience on the island, when I noticed things…the way the wind shifted leaves, the subtle and perfectly rhythmic pattern of waves, how green the trees appeared, the deliberate manner in how a squirrel checked out our campsite.

It was no different than if I’d been at home on the couch, honestly. A house full of people, near each other but far away.

We’ve lost so much. And gained so little.

I made a social post about my trip the next day. Of course I did. Posted my favorite pictures. Of course I did. It got a lot of likes. A few loves. Some nice words. I’m glad people enjoyed seeing and sharing in the beauty of the island. One friend may go there with her own kids sometime. That’s nice. They’ll love it.

But the island they’ll visit, or the woods they’ll see, won’t be the same as the one I did. Certainly not the one I had been used to seeing.

I’m no luddite. I embrace technology. But you can embrace something and still realize how harmful it can be.

There’s no profound lesson here; no call to action. The technology of connection will advance as quickly as our lights have blotted out the natural night sky. This connection is, largely, good. Lives will be saved.

But when we each take our last breaths, what will matter won’t be any of that. It will be in the connections–the real connections–we make. Technology can support but not replace it.

And the two should never be confused.

Try the Triscuits and pepperoni over smoky, hot coals some time. So good. Tastes better when you’re disconnected to the world, yet so connected to what’s around you.

Think Ten: Entering the World of NCAA Rifle

I’ve seen countless, wonderful posts about baseball, softball, basketball, wrestling, hockey, football, gymnastics, swimming, band, track, volleyball, robotics, cheer, lacrosse, dance, ski team, drama, karate, and soccer. Now that the season is done, and my boy is a man, I’d like to share a largely unknown bit of our life, to educate and share my pride.

Throughout high school, Ryan has competed in air rifle and smallbore rifle against hundreds of other youth across the state, region, and nation. Next year, he’s earned a spot on the NCAA rifle team at the University of North Georgia, and will be one of only about 300 student-athletes competing nationally at that level. Perhaps one of 75 or so freshmen. It’s an amazing honor.

Rifle is fascinating. It’s a rare NCAA sport where D1s, D2s, and D3s compete directly, and where men and women compete side-by-side, with and against each other for individual and team scores, which is awesome. Women dominate. Also awesome.

The NCAA champion this year is an all-women’s team. Eight of the top ten individual scores this season are held by women. A woman shot a 599 (out of 600) in the NCAA Championship this year, breaking a six-year record…held by another woman. Ryan’s coach the last two years, as well as his coach at UNG, are women who were top shooters themselves. It is wonderful for Ryan to see and experience all this.

Rifle is also one of the original sports of the modern Olympics, dating back to 1896, and remains one of more than a dozen shooting events in the winter and summer games. Also pretty awesome.

So, this is really, as someone once asked me, “a thing.”

From cold morning practices to clinics and matches across Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, the last few years have seen his weekends and summers centered on the zen of marksmanship.

Like all disciplines, it’s a mental activity first. Anyone can pick up a target rifle and shoot decently. They’re amazingly precise instruments.

But it takes a dedicated person who can regulate their breathing, clear their mind, focus on the precise placement of every element of their body, and hoist a 13-lb rifle onto the target, 20, 40, 60, sometimes 120 times in a row, with standing–the most challenging rifle position–saved for last, when you’re exhausted, running out of time, and fighting your own mental battle about how you’ve done so far.

You’re wearing a rigid jacket, boots, gloves, and pants, whether it’s 30 degrees in the ventilated range or 95 outdoors. You’re covering your nonshooting eye, limiting your field of view with visors and contraptions, watching your sights weave and bob over the two-inch target with every minor movement. When everything is aligned just right, you gently squeeze the trigger and follow through. There’s a light crack, a small tap of recoil, and lasers and computers calculate your precise accuracy. You get instant feedback on a small screen next to you. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that isn’t. The unforgiving, running sum of basic addition up to a perfect 600 taunts you. You reload and do it again. And again. And again. And again.

It’s a discipline of intricate, near-obsessive attention to detail. The difference between the perfect shot and a mediocre one is barely bigger than a pinhead. Everything matters, every shot.

Rifle requires maturity, smarts, discipline, strength, fine motor skills, judgment, sharp vision, muscle, mindfulness, focus, and patience. It’s an unfair generalization, as much as any other stereotype, but rifle seems to attract a fair share of Eagle Scouts, as well as top students.

Is it dangerous? Define “dangerous,“ but no. It’s been yet another injury-free season on the team, but Ryan’s coach records plenty of missed practices because of football, soccer, or skiing injuries.

I worry about Ryan driving to practice far, far more than practice itself.

There are several local junior rifle teams. Yes, here in Connecticut. Many private schools, but some technical schools and even public high schools. When you look at the NCAA shooters from Connecticut and Massachusetts, you’ll generally find a connection to Ryan’s home range, Blue Trail Range in Wallingford, “home of championship shooters.” This year, to experience a top-notch electronic collegiate range, we joined a league that shoots at West Point; so humbling to walk its hallowed ground.

Although the sport is on the upswing nationally in recent years, there used to be many more teams. Explore old high school basements and you may find a rifle range, now sheetrocked into offices or storage. People barely older than me recall bringing their rifle cases on the bus to school for practice. Some local tournaments are proudly going on 80+ years.

I know this discipline zigs where some people zag. I’d say I understand but I truthfully don’t despite trying. Nonetheless, we have been aware of the need to be discrete, which is why I’ve generally not mentioned it. A shame that we’re at that point in conversation and society.

The misconceptions have been enlightening to clarify. No, his team is not “training to be snipers” any more than someone who does javelin is training to spear things, someone who plays hockey is training to shove people into walls, someone who does robotics is training to make a Terminator, or someone who dances a perfect Swan Lake is training to become a bird.

The coaches and facility at Blue Trail Range have been wonderful, steered him in profound directions, and connected him to interesting, caring people. I’m grateful. He’s found some good friends and mentors. He got a great part-time job, coaching younger shooters and doing physical work at the range. He comes home dirty and tired, but enjoying work. May we all be so lucky.

Never an immature kid, his better personality traits of responsibility and inquisitiveness have been strengthened, and coaching has helped him to grow, speak up, and lead. Not the type of “leadership” accolades we give out to kids like trinkets, but real responsibility to serve others through guiding them in serious matters.

Most importantly, because of rifle, he found colleges below our radar that offered him significant merit aid unrelated to the sport, as well as a few scholarships for collegiate shooters. It opened doors he didn’t even know existed.

Because of his aspirations to shoot at the NCAA level, he got practical experience interviewing and communicating with four very different coaches, selling himself, and working toward big goals.

There have been some fun and some not-so-fun moments, like everything. But it’s a great little community, in general, and it’s been a great experience.

It provides challenges for a lifetime, and his local league has more than a few men and women his grandparents’ age. Who, I should add, often outshoot the kids. He’s learned that asking “an old guy” for advice usually gets you pretty good advice, and they’ve been universally gracious with their time, guidance, and lived wisdom.

One inspired me, sharing that he thought the sport aligns perfectly with the quote from Browning (Robert, not John), “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” A writer, I couldn’t love that more.

The lessons learned on the range will stay with him for a very long time, which is why people pursue interests, isn’t it?

Think 10, as coaches say. Every moment, every shot, is a chance for perfection and redemption. And in target shooting, as in life, the small stuff is the big stuff.

A Study in Failure

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster 
and treat those two impostors just the same” 

“If—“ by Rudyard Kipling 

In the last few months, I’ve been invited to several alumni-student networking events at UConn, my alma mater. At the rough halfway point of my career, how seemingly far I’ve come from my 1.3 first-semester GPA.  

The event planners gave me guidance for topics of discussion; a consistent one was to tell students about the path I took to get to today.  This exercise caused some thinking and reflection, which uncovered some trends.  

It is,  of course, nice to be framed as an example of a “successful” alumnus for future Huskies. In my prep, though, I came to realize that I’m a study in failure.  

  • I entered UConn as an engineering major—hence the 1.3—studying computer science, and I left computer science just as the need for that skill was about to skyrocket. I changed majors twice more.
  • I received my degree in journalism at the dawn of an era when everything sustaining journalism—circulation, business models, public trust—was about to collapse.
  • I did a double major in political science and was taking a class in Soviet political systems when the Berlin Wall literally crumbled. The professor came in the next morning, grabbed our textbook, threw it in the empty metal trash can, and said he’d support us trying to get our money back.
  • I went for my MBA later in life and was sitting in a corporate finance class in 2008 when, in the span of a semester, the markets spasmed like never before in my life, and the Great Recession began.  

By any rational measurement, my educational choices had been extremely unlucky, essentially following one fiasco—or missing one opportunity—after the other. On one level, I should be distraught. My education could be viewed a waste. Maybe my career in tatters, or never getting off the ground.  

That’s not happened so far, more or less. What I took from my experiences was an appreciation of complexity. I have learned to be nimble in some respects. Semper Gumby, “Always Flexible.” To pick my fights as things fall apart. And they have. And they will. 

Twenty-five years into my career, I have also learned that life is rarely linear and certainly not animated bluebirds and a glowing, well-lit path. “Success” and “failure” are ying and yang; two sides of the same coin.

Kipling was on to something. 

The art of failing that first semester had value. I’d never failed anything. Graduated near the top of my high school class, did good activities, all that. But I failed and failed hard when I hit college. I wish it was because I was having fun; the truth is I just wasn’t smart and adaptive enough. 

It was good training for everything since. We fail at a lot: jobs, the compasses that guide us, friendships, marriages, parenting, health, life goals, wants and needs. I fail in varying degrees in each of those on a daily basis. We let ourselves down, we let others down, and others let us down.  

I told the students to get used to failure, that failure is essentially the default setting for life. I don’t think they were expecting to hear that. Perfection provides few lessons for improvement. Failure provides them in buckets. Most of the time, I’ve learned. Sometimes I haven’t. I’ve tried. 

Failure is an important lens for me to explain my college experience and “path” to them.  My degrees made me who I am, in profound ways. 

In my liberal arts classes, I learned about so many topics I’d never even heard of. Anthropology, for one, which was far from my suburban upbringing. After that 1.3 GPA, it gave me the notion that perhaps engineering, all I’d ever known, was not the only subject I could study. The knowledge of the wider world opened my eyes. 

My political science education taught me that we are not all that special. That while not all systems of social and cultural organization are equally successful or worthy of emulation, the view of our own horizons is a limited one, which misses so much else.  

My MBA has been invaluable to whatever real or imagined degree of “success” I’ve had professionally. It opened doors, connections and opportunity. Whatever else comes in my career, I’ll always have those three letters after my name. On a personal note, I was a good ten years older than most of my MBA classmates, and I am exceptionally proud that I went for it, although it came at a price of missed Little League games and family dinners that I can’t ever get back. More failure. 

I spent the most time at these student events talking about my journalism experience at UConn. I am who I am because of this small department. I learned so much, like… 

  • Words matter. My professors were relentless in their criticism. Articles I thought were completely fine were judged far lower than completely fine. I was not rewarded for mediocrity. I was told to respect the reader.
  • Details matter. When you had a typo in your article, Professor John Breen took off a full letter grade. We were using very early Macs, and spell-check was turned off. You used a dictionary and the AP Stylebook, and you lived in fear of a typo. The small things are the big things.
  • Dedication matters. Breen told a story about a class assigned to cover a local town meeting. Most of the students left after the main agenda item. One student stayed for the whole meeting and was there to witness and cover a serious medical emergency. Everyone else took the easy path; this student was dedicated to the unglamorous work.
  • Emotion matters. Professor Wayne Worcester taught us feature writing and would play his favorite music for us as we wrote. Work and emotion are intertwined. It’s hard to do anything well without emotion.
  • Passion matters. These were hardscrabble reporters at their core. John Breen was about as close to a movie reporter as I’d ever seen. He used a manual typewriter. He smoked in his office. There were stacks of newspapers literally piled around him. All he needed was a fedora with a piece of paper labeled PRESS sticking out of it. He didn’t “phone in” to teach us. He was a reporter at his core and it showed his passion.
  • Critical thought matters. Breen was my professor for Newswriting 101. In the very first class, he told us, and I quote, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check your sources.” Think for yourself. Dig. Accept nothing at face value. In this day and age, when we are repeatedly lied to, manipulated, allowed to easily retreat into the warm bed of thought that is just like our own, this is a jarring statement. I would argue it’s the most powerful single sentence I’ve ever heard. 

Critical thought, passion, emotion, dedication, attention to detail and clear communications are invaluable in any life or career.  

I never became a reporter, never got into politics or law, and never made a fortune in business. But I learned to leverage different parts of all of my experiences to the point where I have had what seems on the outside to be a moderately successful life at mid-point. To that, I can only shrug and say, “We’ll see.”

Success takes many forms,  and the journey of life is defining what the word means.  

I’ve failed. A lot. I routinely do. Hopefully always will.

For better or worse, it’s made me what I am. 

 

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.