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Newtown, CTAgain. It’s happened again. And because of my experience at Virginia Tech, once again I have to find a way to manage what I know about this kind of violence, knowledge I never wanted and knowledge I resent having. What I know is this:

Right now, scores of people are wandering in and around Sandy Hook Elementary School. Some have been called there because they have a job to do. Some have been drawn there because they seek solace in others who are grieving. There are tears — many, many tears — and there are people, some of them strangers, who are grasping one another, hugging because they hope that simple act might somehow stave off the crushing reality they are faced with. And sometimes it does. Others are alone, their faces cloaked in blank expressions because they can find no emotion to capture what his happening in their heads and in their hearts. Makeshift memorials — candles, flowers, photographs — are appearing at the school and the fire station and the town offices.

Parents are there, too, and by now, if they haven’t been reunited with their children, they fear the worst. More than the worst. They are being tended to by counselors and others but the wait is still unbearable. And the identities of the victims — their children likely among them — will not be released for some time because there are so many and the coroner’s offices cannot process them quickly for fear of making a terrible, terrible mistake. And so the survivors must wait.

Many men and women are in uniform or in blue windbreakers with bright yellow letters across the back — FBI, ATF, State Police. They are huddling in groups in corners, grim-faced and focused, whispering into radios and phones. Other uniformed men and women have cordoned off the school – now a crime scene — and are fending off the curious and the concerned and the grief-stricken.

All around the school, the streets are clogged with vehicles — hulking black SUVs, police cruisers, unmarked Ford sedans, and an array of oversized vans emblazoned with network and local station logos, each with a satellite antenna craning up into the darkening sky. Throughout the town, reporters are doing stand-ups under bright camera lights, staking out spots with the most dramatically lit views of the school in the background and parading whoever they can find that is willing to talk in front of the camera — survivors, parents, officials, townspeople … anyone.

A black hole is forming over Newtown right now. At its center is a small elementary school, more than two dozen lost souls, and an act of unspeakable horror. In the days and weeks and months ahead, we — all of us — will be drawn to it, mainly because we will want explanations. Some will seek them because they are paid to sort this sort of thing out. Some will seek them because their job is to investigate and share what they discover with us. Some, and I am regrettably among this number, are seeking what we must know we will never find — some answer that goes beyond how far we have fallen.

Generally speaking, we don’t watch much TV in our house. That’s largely because I never know what’s on, and scrolling through hundreds of channels only confirms my hunch about how little of it is worth watching. So I tend to default toward a few channels that I’ve found to be reliably entertaining. And one of those is the Food Network.

Don’t get me wrong. I still find a lot of what’s aired there to be incredibly inane, and frankly, I’d live happily ever after if I never had to see (and hear) Guy Fieri smacking his lips over some greasy treat.

But watching chefs? That’s a different matter. And it’s not just watching them cook that fascinates me. It’s watching them plate what they’ve prepared. Have you seen this? A spoon full of rich colorful sauce gets swiped across a plate, like an elegant — and edible — brushstroke. Exotic and wildly colored leafy greens are arranged by hand into an inviting bed, and delicately sliced cuts of meat — roasted just so — are fanned across it. And finally, a sprig or a sprinkle or a sprout dropped casually, but somehow thoughtfully, crowns the entire creation.

This art came to mind the other day as I edited copy that came my way from another office on campus. The letter was simple enough and, frankly, we could have sent it as it was. All the ingredients were there — the nouns, the verbs, the adjectives, the proper marks of punctuation. But they were simply slapped down on the plate. Edible? Sure. Edifying? Hardly.

Of course, there are plenty of times when slapping something on a plate — or dumping words in a sentence — is good enough. Maybe it’s an internal memo, or an email to a colleague, or any occasion when the need to transmit information in a quick and concise way trumps whatever else you may have in mind. But if your writing is intended for an external audience or if you need to move someone to action or evoke an emotional response, think twice about how you “plate” your sentences.

Don’t settle for the first expression of your thoughts that comes to mind. Instead, choose your words carefully. Find the noun that has the exact meaning you want. Search for a verb that conveys action and vigor.

Focus on actors and actions in every sentence. WHO is doing WHAT?

Use adjectives like a master chef uses the final garnish — sparingly and gracefully.

Then, when you’re done, take a moment to congratulate yourself and flip on the television for some entertainment. Try the Food Network. It works for me.

The Double Nickel

Just yesterday, as I was meeting with two of my staffers, the subject of my birthday came up and one of my most trusted colleagues asked me how old I would be.

“55,” I answered.

“Wow, that’s a big number,” she responded and almost instantly began backpedaling. “I mean a significant number. You know, a big milestone. An important date.”

We laughed at her quick thinking and her instinctive ability to quickly recast her words when they have been wrongly interpreted. It’s something my whole staff does well, and in public relations – our line of work – it’s an invaluable skill.

But she’s right on both counts. It is a big number in both of those senses.

I don’t know where I thought I’d be when I reached the point of being entitled to the senior menu at my favorite restaurant or discounted coffee at fast food places. But I never would have imagined it to be here – in central Maine, living on a lake, serving as vice president at an elite liberal arts college, heading up a talented and energized group of professionals like my now red-faced friend. Nor could I have imagined nearly twenty years with my beautiful wife, the paths my kids’ lives are taking, and how much I would have come to love a dog … my dog. So I’m looking back today, awed by the circuitous and sometimes sideways path led me here.

But here’s the weird thing. I’m looking forward, as well. I’m thinking about many many more years with my wife, about watching my kids become adult versions of the magnificent creatures they already are. And I’m thinking about all the work left to be done here at Colby, about how great it feels to stoke the creative fire in a group of talented people and watch what happens.

About beaches I’ve yet to visit, and Irish pubs that are waiting for my arrival, and about the short stories and novels I’ve yet to read. And the ones I’ve yet to write.

So given all this, 55 seems an appropriate number. It’s the same coming and going. It looks back just as well as it looks forward.

Lucky me.

(A note: this morning that same staffer reminded me that she said “That’s a big ONE,” not a big “number.” See? I told you she was good.)

I love NPR. Every day, no matter when or how much I’m able to listen, I get a surprise. Like this story on Paul Thorn, a long-time favorite and an incredibly under-appreciated singer-songwriter. Or this one, about Facebook’s comparatively small advertising revenue (Planet Money rocks). Or, this morning, this one, about the media landscape in Afghanistan.

Buried in that report is this statistic — 60 percent of the Afghan population is under 20 years old. Think about that for a minute. Just imagine that generation as they come of age — what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned, what they’ve seen, and what they know of us.

That thought hit me especially hard this morning because this weekend, my son will be graduating from the high school drama program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts. My daughter, who dances with the Bossov Ballet at Maine Central Institute, has just started learning to drive. These are seminal moments in a child’s life, the kind of moments I’ve written about here before. And, if your parenting is anything like ours, you devote a tremendous amount of time, attention, and (often) money engineering your life and your children’s lives so that these kinds of moments come.

I look at it as leading my children down a passageway defined by our belief system and our worldview and our ideas about what is right and good … and what is not. And that passageway is lined with doors, each one representing an opportunity for growth and direction. Each one is an opportunity for forward motion, for taking the first steps toward rich, productive and — we hope — the happiest of lives.

We don’t push them through. We simply try to make sure that we open as many as we can, explain to our children what the landscape beyond that door might hold, and then let them choose whether or not they want to walk through it. For my son, this has meant a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, the release of two CDs, including a complete solo project – words, music, instruments, recording, even clapping — and now some impressive acting chops to take with him to Drew University in the fall. My daughter spent nearly two years dancing with the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC before switching to the Bossov. She’s an amazing and dedicated dancer, and shows incredible promise as a thinker and a writer. There are many, many doors yet to come for her, but I know they will open, and I know she will choose wisely.

And what of a similar generation in Afghanistan? Or Pakistan? Or rural Maine, for that matter? What doors are being opened for them? Or, perhaps more tellingly, what doors will remain forever and always closed?

It’s commencement season here at Colby College and at high schools and colleges across the country. And  whether or not we have participants in those ceremonies, we all have plenty of reasons to celebrate these new beginnings — all the things that are commencing. But this morning, at least for a moment, I had reason to think about other young lives, lives without open doors and new beginnings, and what my obligation might be to them.

Thanks, NPR.

It’s about 11:30 when I finally make it upstairs  – a little later than my normal bedtime. So maybe I’m not as clearheaded as I might have been in the middle of the day. Maybe I’m hallucinating.

But what I see is this – the lake, silvery in the strong moonlight, pulses, subtly heaving up and down, as though it’s breathing. I move closer, standing close enough now for my breath to fog the floor-to-ceiling windows a bit, and I can see that maybe it’s not pulsing after all, but it’s in some sort of steady motion all the same.

After a moment, it’s clear that from somewhere to the west, down the length of the open water, an almost imperceptible force – not quite wind – is nudging the water eastward, bouncing it off the rocky shore in front of our house at an odd angle, and that combination of waves and wind and shore and moonlight is creating something I’ve never seen before.

Living here on the shore of Messalonskee Lake in Central Maine, it’s not unusual for me to see the water in a way I’ve never seen it before. In fact, it’s become commonplace, a source of almost daily fascination. Some days it might be a strange band of dark still water bisecting the otherwise variegated surface. Some days it might be a concentration of irregularly shaped rings scattered randomly across the surface in the lee of Blake’s Island. And some days, especially in the thick morning fog, the water is indistinguishable from the land or the sky on the horizon.

But here’s the deal: it’s always the same lake. The shore never shifts. Blake’s Island never moves. The treeline opposite me varies in color only. So given those parameters only, one might reasonably expect constancy. Not so.

Standing there before the window and the silvery breathing surface of the lake, it occurs to me that maybe life is like this, too. Most of the parameters of my days seem fixed — same routines, same job, same relationships. There’s not a lot of variance in them, and usually, I regard that constancy as a blessing.

But suppose my days demanded my attention the way the lake seems to do? Suppose I was powerfully drawn to stop and look – I mean really look – at any given moment? Would I see something I’ve never seen before?

Then I’d really be one lucky man.

Because I am a creature of habit, I see them around 5:30 nearly every morning as I make my way to the gym. They are both smallish, probably in their mid-60s. And even though it’s still pretty dark that early, I can see that they resemble one another in the way that long-married couples often do — both seem to have pretty much the same haircut, the same glasses, and even the same slightly stooped posture and cramped gait. Thankfully, they are wearing matching reflective vests — the kind normally sported by highway workers — so the handful of us who are out this early have no trouble spotting them from a pretty good ways away. It’s clear they are walking for exercise, though not just exercise, for as they make their way along the street, they stoop to pick up empty water bottles or hot dog boxes or stray plastic bags, anything that’s accumulated along the curb since the previous morning. And this morning when I see them, I think of Bill Gates.

It’s a stretch, I know. Though he may do so, I find it hard to imagine that Bill Gates spends much time in a reflective vest picking up trash. In fact years ago, I read an funny piece in Harper’s by Brad Templeton that calculated that it wouldn’t be worth the software titan’s time to even stop to pick up a $1000 bill (that number has long since increased, I’m sure). But Bill Gates, along with Warren Buffet and a few dozen other billionaires, have just pledged to do something very interesting — give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes through an initiative called The Giving Pledge.

It’s an admirable gesture, I think, one that has the power to make a significant impact in the philanthropic landscape. But there’s a risk here, too. By hearkening back to the days of the billionaire philanthropists of old — the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts — we may find it easier to imagine that giving back is the obligation of only that rarefied class. The gesture they are making is so far beyond the capacity, even the imagination, of most of us that it can, if viewed from a certain perspective, seem utterly foreign.

I have the good fortune to work in a trade in which I continually see evidence of giving in action. I routinely meet and write about those who have given thousands, tens of thousands, even millions to a cause they deem worthy, and I get to see firsthand how transformational their generosity can be. Students who might not otherwise have had a chance to earn a degree graduate and join the workforce. Research discoveries that may have remained hidden are brought forth, carrying with them the potential to change our world. Scholars who have much to offer and little time to articulate it find the intellectual breathing room to help us understand more about who we are.

Yet when I think of this couple scuttling along in the predawn light reflecting back my headlights, I’m thinking that they, too, are giving back. They are making a small, silent, almost unseen gesture that edifies their community and, by extension, them. They are acting on an impulse that exists in all of us, no matter how hard we may seek ways to stifle it, and that is the impulse to give something back. Time. Talent. Treasure. It doesn’t matter.

I’m glad to see the list of billionaires who have taken the pledge to give back, just as I’m glad to see the quiet gestures of the remarkably ordinary folks who take the time to enrich something besides themselves. For both remind me of the richness of our lives, and our deep-seated and abiding obligation to share some of that richness.

500,000,000 can't be wrong, can they?A couple of very different stories about Facebook hit the news cycle at about the same time last week, and they both speak to the site’s place in our lives — but in very different ways.

The first story is a pretty straightforward piece of evidence. Facebook has doubled in size in just the last year, and has now surpassed 500 million users, amassing 100 million new users just since February. Mark Zuckerberg, the face behind Facebook, has promised that they will reach 1 billion, and at this rate that seems certain.

But here’s the other curious piece of news. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, conducted by the University of Michigan’s business school, a LOT of those 500 million people aren’t very satisfied. The site placed in the bottom five percent of private sector companies for customer satisfaction.

Put those two stories together for a minute, and let them roll around in your head. What’s that tell you? That Facebook better get its act together or they’ll tumble? Doubtful.

What it says to me is that Facebook has reached some pretty rare heights. They have built a product that is so ubiquitous that they don’t have to care if people are satisfied with it. Sure, they will no doubt continue to make tweaks to “refine” the Facebook experience. But in the end, it’s like we used to say about Ma Bell before the breakup.

They’re the phone company. They don’t care. They don’t have to.

Other service providers have this same status. Take cable television, for example. My guess is that most of you reading this post pay a pretty penny every month for access to hours and hours of programming you don’t watch and wouldn’t be interested in anyway. Bad service? Oh, well. Spotty signal? Bummer. We kicked the cable habit (as well as the TV habit pretty much) about eight years ago and now the thought of actually paying $30, $50, or even $70 dollars a month (how high do YOU go?) to watch TV seems like absolute folly. Yet for most, it’s just not something they would ever consider doing without. Increasingly, it’s the same with web access. We simply feel like we have to have it, and we’ll pony up whatever we need to keep it.

For my part, I’m not sure whether I need Facebook or not. Certainly this blog would have far fewer readers without it. And I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of catching up with some old friends at a high school reunion a few weeks back if I wasn’t a Facebook user. So there are some definite advantages for me. But increasingly, there are times when I log on and find myself wondering exactly what I’m looking for. Or whether or not it’s the best way for me to be spending my time at that moment.

In the end, I tend to judge technology’s worth to me by its utility, not how engaging or amusing it is. Sometimes, as in the case of my iPod Touch, I am surprised to discover just how quickly a particular technology proves valuable to me, often in ways I might not have expected. But other times — and this is where I am with Facebook — the scales begin to imperceptibly tilt in the opposite direction.

I’m not sure I’ll ever pull the plug on Facebook as I did with cable TV, but I’m not sure I could rule out such a possibility either. In the meantime, you can find me there at www.facebook.com/oneluckyman. Look me up, and tell me why I should remain among the 499,999,999 (and growing) people who “like” it.

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