On Fatherhood

Below is a Chapel Talk* I gave a couple of weeks ago now.   The tragedy of Newton, CT has hit me harder than any other national news event that I can recall.  There’s no doubt in my mind that fatherhood is the reason behind it.  President Obama nailed it yesterday when he said that parenthood is like removing your heart from your body and letting it walk around outside of you.  My boys are an incredible gift.  I’m thankful they’re healthy.

Delivered December 6, 2012 at St. John’s Chapel, Groton School

“So, What’s it like being a dad?”

“What?”

“It must be cool, you know?  Like, that’s your kid and all.”

“Uh, Yeah.  It’s cool.  I mean big responsibility and all that, but yeah, it’s cool.”

That was a conversation that Ray Dunn and I had just before study hall sometime last year.   Short and awkward, that conversation has stuck with me for some time now, and I often find that question floating around in my head.  “What’s it like being a dad?”

I’ll be honest.  When I signed up to do this Chapel talk, on St. Nicholas’s day (Patron saint of children) I fully intended to do some reflecting, do some writing, arrive here, and share some truly brilliant insight into what it is like being a parent. Give you some pointed, wise, and timeless advice on how some day, you too can be a parent.

Anyone want to take bets on whether or not that’s actually going to happen?

I did do a lot of thinking about this question, and like I said, it still runs through my head from time to time.  “What’s it like being a dad?”

Well, for one, being a dad is terrifying.

I have a serious paranoia streak.  I’m not like those people on Doomsday Preparers, but I can see how one could get there.

If I let myself, I could wake up every morning and ask myself, “What am I going to do today that is totally going to screw my kid up 20 years from now?”  That’s if I let myself.

Not only is the idea of raising this human being that could become the leader of the free world, or a psychotic mass murder, or somewhere in between, terrifying but the entire process leading up to the birth of this child is an experience, that frankly, I don’t want to go through again.

Let me share with you my experience with our first-born, Parker.

We were still living in Vermont at the time and Parker was a week overdue.   Maria’s water broke at about midnight on Sunday.  As nothing was really happening besides that—no contractions, etc.— we were told to get some rest (right) and come into the hospital at 8 a.m.

We did and as there still wasn’t much going on, they hooked Maria up to an IV and start pumping a drug called pitocin which speeds up the process of all hell breaking loose.

Fast forward to Tuesday at 3 a.m.  There’s some contractions going on now.  Things are moving, albeit slowly.

8 a.m.  Now hard labor is going and Maria is told to start pushing.   This goes on for three hours.

Now I should stop here and let you all know that the crazy person that I’m married to has decided to do this without painkillers.

Those three hours were awful.  Terrifying.   It was three hours of watching the person that I decided to spend the rest of my life with, go through this insufferable amount of pain.  And there is nothing I can do.  I’m totally useless.

There was one point at which Maria reached over, grabbed me by the love handles, and lifted all 195 pounds of me off of the ground.

All I could think was, “This hurts.  But not as much as that.”

At one point, watching this all, completely helpless, in one of many acts of hypocrisy I have committed, I remember praying.  Please just let her get through this.   Please.  I can’t raise this kid by myself.

Terrifying.

It’s also hard.  Fatherhood is hard.   It’s hard because so often, my initial reactions to situations is an emotional one.  It’s typically something that I should know how to handle better, but often don’t.   These aren’t new lessons for me.  In fact they’re ones that I’ve learned years ago, mostly through coaching.

I learned quickly in my coaching career, that I am not Bear Bryant.  To start, I coach the wrong sport. But I am not a hard-nosed disciplinarian. I learned that in my first year as a swimming coach after college.

It was just me on the pool deck, and this group of swimmers had totally exhausted any patience that I had left.  In attempt to show them how tough I was, I went ballistic.   I stopped practice, started yelling, snapped a clipboard, and lined up an innocent pull buoy lying on the deck.

So I lined up this styrofoam football sized buoy one places between one’s legs in order to keep one’s legs afloat while doing pull drills took three steps, and set it flying into the stands of the observation deck.

Unfortunately, the shoe I was wearing followed it.

It is very hard to feel tough wearing clogs.  It’s even harder to feel tough when you’re standing on a wet pool deck, with one clog on, one clog off, balancing on one foot so that your sock doesn’t get wet.

That was the first lesson.  The second occurred three years later on a pool deck in Florida.  I was coaching the college team this time with my former coach and mentor.   It was New Year’s Eve Day and it was pretty evident both by the smell in the van on the ride over, and what I was seeing in the pool during warm ups that the team had been out late celebrating the night before.

Coach stopped everyone and I prepared my tough guy assistant coach stance and look.   Rather than berate them however, Coach took a totally different approach.   Rather focus on how angry he was that they had clearly broken our trust and were thus far putting in a dog bleep practice, he put it back on them.  He essentially said that they had let themselves down.  The only thing that was going to decide where they went in this practice, season, career, was their actions and their commitment.

I’m not doing a great job of summing this up, but it was one of the greatest teaching moments I’ve ever been a part of.   It was like the zen of coaching or something.

It’s a lesson that I’ve found I need reminding of as a parent.  It’s hard to remember to stay within yourself when put in a situation like when all you want your kid to do is eat a damn pea.

Just one.

Instead, you find yourself locked in this battle with this stubborn little 3 year-old who refuses to eat even one pea.   25 minutes into it, you’re stuck at the table wondering “Can I give in?  I can’t give in.  If I give in to this, I’ll be a total failure as a parent.  I can’t give in. ”

30 minutes in you’re asking yourself, “Wait, which one of us is three?”

Then the next thing you know, 45 minutes has gone by, you’re both in tears.  No pea has been eaten.  There is no winner.  No lesson learned.  Except a reminder to stay within myself.

Parenting is hard.  It’s also the most joyous thing that I have ever done.

I have an unhealthy relationship with a wild piece of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom.  In the NEK is a lake called Seymour in a town called Morgan (Emmett’s middle name) and in that town is a house that my grandparents bought in the 50’s and is now owned by the next generation down.  It’s a place where I have been going since I was Emmett’s age. In Vermont we call these places camp.  I have missed friend’s birthday parties and weddings  in order to spend a weekend at camp.  I didn’t say it was a healthy relationship.

This summer, Parker and I spent a lot of time up there.   Maria too.  She likes it.  But Parker and I, we love it.  Parker loves that place like I love that place.  I can see it already.

One weekend we pulled in at around 6 on a Friday.  I let Parker out of his car seat and he began running towards the lake, stripping off clothing, yelling “I love camp!  I love camp!”

I can’t tell you the feeling of pride and joy that I had.  The boy got it.

After a weekend of swimming, fishing, kayaking, peanut butter and fluff sandwiches walks around the mile, wearing little more than underwear (Parker not me) we prepared to leave on Sunday.   As we drove away, Parker was in tears.  “I don’t want to leave camp!”

I have to admit that I was too.

This is in reality, no big feat.  I’m a crier.  Ask the boys in my dorm last year or anyone who has seen me in the handshaking line.

I was crying because here is the most special place in my world, a place where I have uncountable numbers of childhood memories.   A place that has so many emotions tied to it—for me.  Here was this place that I had fallen in love with.  And my boy had too.   We shared something incredible on that day. Truth be told, I didn’t want to leave either.  I wanted that weekend to last forever.

I don’t know how I could possibly forget that moment.

So, despite all of the terror and the stand offs over legumes, being a dad has been a wonderful and fulfilling experience.

I did want to leave you with some original piece of advice for you future parents in the room.  Unfortunately I don’t have any.  What I do have is some that my uncle gave to me before he passed away when I was the age of many of you of you here.

He said, “Andrew, it doesn’t matter how you raise your kids, what method you use or any of that.  All that matters is you love them. And tell them so.”

Thank you.

* Apologies to my wife for sharing her birth story with 400 people without asking her.  Apologies to my wife for doing the same thing here.
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A Couple of Presentations

I’ve done a couple of presentations around here in the last few weeks.  Below you’ll find the Slideshares to each.  I find Slideshares to be mostly useless, so if you have any questions, @drewmillikin.

This is a presentation I did for our admission office.  It’s basic overview of our four core social media tools: Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, and now Instagram.

 

This is one that I just gave to a small group of trustees.   It’s a case study of how we used social media to share the announcement of our new headmaster.

 

So You Want to Work at a Boarding School

This started off as a rant against those who talk about how busy they are and turned into a here’s my week at a glance.  Life at a boarding school isn’t for everyone. It’s a demanding lifestyle, and I use the word lifestyle deliberately.   Technically, I’m on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week when students are present.   I live with the people with which I spend all day working.   I eat three meals a day with them.

It’s an incredibly rewarding place to live and work though.  That concert on Tuesday night?  Well, we got the boy dressed up in his pj’s and he and I went and listened to the music for an hour giving mom a much-needed break.  Where else to you get to bring your three-year old to hear music in his pj’s?

Life here is busy though, and you have to get involved and be engaged in the community.  Otherwise, why work at a boarding school?  There are day schools if you’re looking to shut things down at 5p.m. each night.

Here’s my typical week:

Sunday:
7p.m. Dorm duty starts.
11:00 p.m. Check in wraps up and I’m back in my apartment for a drink then off to bed.

Monday:
8 a.m. Chapel then a full work day until 4:30 p.m. unless I decided to duck off early at 3:30 to go out on a bike ride with the cycling club.
6:15 p.m. All school sit-down dinner.
7:15 p.m. Stop in a the arts performance and then off to a prep meeting for tomorrow night’s meeting.
8:30 p.m. back home in time to say good night to the boy.

Tuesday:
8:00 a.m. Chapel and then another full workday
7:15 p.m. Meeting with our fourth formers
9 p.m. Back home.  Missed bed time tonight.

Wednesday:
8:30 a.m. No Chapel today, but I do have a meeting to debrief last night’s meeting.  After that right into a full work day.
2:30 p.m. If there are home games, I’ll walk around campus and catch a few minutes of each.
7:15 p.m. Dorm duty and study hall.
11:00 p.m. Back home and ready to crash.

Thursday:
8:00 a.m. Chapel and then a full work day.
7:30 p.m. Dinner with alumni at some college within driving distance of campus.  This may turn into an overnight if I’m visiting a school more than 2 and a half hours away.
Midnight:  Hopefully I’m back home.

Friday:
8:00 a.m. Chapel then a full workday.  Maybe skipping out at 3:30 p.m. for a bike ride.
5:00 pm. Finally, a night off.  That is assuming none of my dorm residents need a ride to the grocery store or CVS or something like that.

Saturday:
I’m lucky in that I don’t have any official duties on Saturdays with the exception of two weekend duty nights a term.  You can usually catch me at the local playgrounds or games on campus as I try to spend as much time as possible with the boy.

With great demands come great rewards

Now there are times, especially at the beginning of the year and end, when my wife will complain that there needs to be a support group for spouses os faculty that work here.  There are indeed times when it gets claustrophobic and by the end of the year you are running on fumes.

The saving grace for me is that I pretty much live where I work, and I can bring the boy to things like arts performances, games and sit-down dinner.  Without that piece, forget it.  I came to a boarding school to raise a family in a unique environment, raise my kids in a communal and intellectual setting, and most importantly, be a part of their childhood.

The boarding school life has been all that so far, and as I suspected when I was visiting schools like this as and admission rep., it has been a wonderful place to raise (and grow) a family.

Happy Birthday!

Every time I see a birthday notice in my Facebook feed, I make sure to write them a little birthday note .  This is a 180 degree turn for me.  I used to ignore them, and even took sort of a Scrooge approach to it.  I have no idea why; I just did. I’m also at the age where I’m not longer psyched about birthdays.  They’re just one step closer to 40.

I decided to stop being a jerk and start doing this soon after my birthday this past year.  I usually get annoyed by those little red notices alerting you that someone has posted on your wall, but it rocks seeing a bazillion well wishes on your Facebook page on your birthday. I’m kind of on this whole, let’s be more positive and less critical kick as well (let me know if it’s working).  I now figure that if I can push those birthday well wishes from a bazillion to a bazillion-and-one, well, why not be part of the awesomeness.  If I’m Facebook friends with you, then we’re close enough that I can give you a little birthday love.

So if I’ve missed your birthday, (those helpful little notices don’t show up on the mobile) then here’s a happy belated birthday to you!

The Way Back Machine

I was clearing out my Google Docs when I came across this  little gem.  It’s a document that I wrote to my then protegé, explaining our social media strategy which I helped develop.  It’s now four years old and they’ve gotten way more sophisticated, but I found it interesting to look back at some of the predictions I made, and also, how much of it is still relevant today.

My favorite part might be, ” At its best, a college education is an opportunity to grow intellectually and emotionally.  It is a chance to create long-lasting relationships and connections personally and professionally.  At its worse, it is a four-year summer camp with booze, sex and drugs. “

The Successful Electronic Marketing Campaign
Andrew M. Millikin

The successful electronic marketing campaign incorporates multiple media channels in a complimentary manner to an institution’s marketing efforts in print media.  There are four important points to remember throughout the campaign.   Actually that’s a bunch of B.S.  There are a ton of things to remember, but here are a few that came to mind:

  1. Keep the message on target.  A successful electronic campaign will seamlessly blend the focus of a print marketing campaign and vice versa – be truthful to the institution on both accounts.
  2. Be quick.  Be nimble.  Damn the committees!  Committees are where good ideas go to die.  Avoid them at all costs.  Embrace the mantra that it is easier to beg for forgiveness than ask permission of a committee.
  3. It’s not about what you want.  It’s about what they want.  It’s about creating a space and creating tools for people who care about a subject to share, collaborate and create (stolen from Brad J. Ward who stole it from the insufferable Seth Godin).  Keep the information accurate, but don’t try to control the message.
  4. You sell a cool product.  At its best, a college education is an opportunity to grow intellectually and emotionally.  It is a chance to create long-lasting relationships and connections personally and professionally.  At its worse, it is a four-year summer camp with booze, sex and drugs.  Either way, for the right audience, it is a cool product.

I.  Email Marketing

KnightLites

The KnightLites emails provide a branding for our email communication.  At its simplest, KnightLites is a monthly newsletter highlighting Saint Michael’s strongest programs including M.O.V.E., the Smuggs Pass, Fire & Rescue, PBK and also on campus signature events such as P-Day and Jibbfest.

The Knightlites brand is also used to send information to targeted groups as deemed fit.  For example, news may come out that an English major has received a grant to write a novel.  A KnightLites will then go out to prospects who have selected English as an interest of theirs.  This can be done for all academic interests and extra-curricular interests.  It’s best to stay away from NCAA sports interests as there are NCAA regulations that govern how athletic programs are marketed to high school athletes.

Quick Tips

  • K.I.S.S.  Live by it.  Keep It SHORT and SWEET.  I know not what you were expecting, but these are words to live my when it comes to email.  Think of the pyramid structure in journalistic writing – most important points first to catch the reader’s attentions and then bring in the less exciting, but often essential details. 200 words max.
  • Graphics and photos can add to a story, but because of the way SPAM filters and email services work, they should never be the sole content in an email.
  • Every email should have a purpose and each Email should always have an action message driving the recipient to take action.  This can be as simple as directing a student to the website for more information.
  • Don’t use “Click Here.”  It sounds lame.  At the same time don’t use url’s like http://www.smcvt.edu in the text.  The code that FER adds to track click-throughs makes it look ugly in the text.
  • Before you hit send ask yourself, “What is the goal of this email?”  Then proofread it 3 times.  Read it backwards and then read it forwards and then backwards again.  Check links.

The Next Level

The current campaign structure that we have is sufficient, but there is definitely more room to grow.  Raising awareness amongst faculty and getting them more involved in the recruiting process by using tools like email is certainly one way.

II. Social Media

It’s not what you want.  It’s what they want.  But you sell a cool product.  How do you get your message out?

A prospective student has three questions that they want answered.  Can I get in?  Will I fit in?  And now, perhaps more so than before, can I afford it?

Your task in is to not broadcast the marketing department’s message in relation to these questions, but rather to create a space where these questions can be asked and discussed, not with you, but with their peers.

Remember, it’s never about you.  It’s always about them and their needs.

Facebook

Facebook is the foundation of a social media marketing plan.  It’s the largest social networking site in the world, and we’ve only done an okay job using it.  To make it more successful, we’ve got to drive more traffic to the Fan Page.  Whether it is the Admission Fan Page or, hopefully, an overall Saint Michael’s College Fan Page getting the word out is key.

In the past, I was hesitant to use email to announce our presence on this social network because I thought it was their space.  That, in retrospect, was a mistake.  Again, we have a cool product.  It’s okay to let people know where they can find us.  Email,  blogs, what ever you can do to drive traffic to the site, and then you need to figure out what needs to be there for content.  That content has to be updated regularly and frequently.  A Fan Page without new and fresh content is a Fan Page without active fans.

The structure of Facebook is as follows:
Profiles
Fan Pages
Groups

Recent updates to Facebook have been in an effort to make Fan Pages more like profiles.  My sense is that Fan Pages are best suited for groups with broad interests i.e. the Saint Michael’s College Fan Page.  Groups are more suited for specific interests such as the Class of 2013.

I’ve found that the best content on a Facebook “Class of..”  is organic content.  Let the prospective students create their own.  They’re also a great place to advertise events like Blogger Chats.

Fan Pages are also great places for events. Ideally, we’d have a more proactive and technology friendly residence/student life staff and we’d have a better representation of what happens on campus here outside of classes.

The Next Level

The challenge is always, “How do we drive traffic to the Fan Page and how do we increase participation?”  Creating a Fan Page that isn’t focused on the admission process or just a rss feed for news from the marketing department, but rather is focused on current student activities, athletic events, special events on campus, will provide a service to current students and give prospective students a better idea of life at Saint Michael’s.

Getting multiple offices in line on campus will also be helpful as it will give them a glimpse into the task of recruiting perspective students and what they’re looking for in as far as student services, etc.

Ning

The Ning sites are customizable social networking sites.  We use two one for accepted students which is an invitation only site and another for prospective parents which has no restrictions.  Ning isn’t as user-friendly as Facebook.  It’s slightly harder to navigate.  I haven’t spent much time digging around in the guts of it (XXXX handles these), so I don’t know much about formatting options.  It seems like the simpler the better and like all of them, the more action the better.  Bloggers should be on both, and a reminder from time to time wouldn’t be a bad idea.  The key with these is to check it often and be able to respond to a post immediately.  If it’s allowed to sit, it will be forgotten.

The Next Level

The Parent Coordinator and you and XXXX need to work on whose responsibility this is.  To me its social media and therefore it makes much more sense for the social media expert in the office to oversee the page. I can also see the argument that the parent coordinator should be the one as they’re thinking about parents everyday as part of their job.  That being said I still think the social media coordinator is the one who should over see it.

Twitter

Twitter is the fastest growing social network in the world.  The challenge here lies in its users.  They’re older.  They’re more likely to be in there 30’s and 40’s than in high school.  It is growing though, and going after that older population isn’t a bad thing either.  It may mean that you’re connected with parents of prospective students rather than the prospective students.  Parents are of course major players in the decision process so again, this isn’t a bad thing.

Twitter can also serve as the blog post between the blog post.  The short 140 character updates provide another dimension and give a reader more insight into the lives of the Bloggers on the Saint Michael’s campus.

Once students get into this they begin to see it as their own.  It’s less formal than a blog and therefore, the content can get iffy.  I’m pretty anti-censorship and haven’t acted on anything, but there have been times….

The Next Level

I don’t know.  It’s a new medium.  Its growth was so steep that I don’t think that the real value in Twitter has been figured out.  As I’ve said many times though, it’s a great professional development tool.  Make as many connections as possible with social media professionals at other schools.  It’s a great networking tool.

Blogs

This is where the story really comes out.  I often tell the Bloggers that they just need to write about life.  It doesn’t’ have to be groundbreaking, Pulitzer quality stuff.  It just needs to be stuff and it needs to be updated frequently.   I think the team atmosphere that I created with the Saint Michael’s College Bloggers has helped aid in the frequent posts.  Meeting a couple of time s a month with them will help as well.  A blog that hasn’t been updated in 3 months is worse than no blog at all.  Again, I haven’t censored anything and I haven’t had to even think about it in these.  Typically they understand what to write and what not to write.

Quick tip

Never begin a post with “Sorry I haven’t posted in a while” or some manifestation of that phrase.  That’s an excuse and excuses are always lame.  Besides, it draws attention to the fact that you’re a slacker and are neglecting your blog.

The Next Level

This is a big one.  We have done a blogs pretty well in the last couple of years.  The key is finding good talent and getting them involved in the group to keep their enthusiasm going throughout the year.

III.  GO BIG OR GO HOME- The Big Picture Next level

The next step is simply to increase the media through which the conversation can continue.  While we have some presence on YouTube and Flickr, etc, it won’t take much to do a better job.

Flickr
Flickr has been very useful with students who are studying abroad.  XXXXX is very familiar with Flickr and he would be a great person to act as a photo blogger.

YouTube
YouTube is another area that would be an easy area to increase our presence.  Each time a Blogger makes a video, rather than import it directly into Blogger, they should upload it to the YouTube account.  The video quality will be better and it would mean more content on the account.  A quick ten minute sit down with the Bloggers would be sufficient to teach them how to do it.  It’s an easy process.

Ustream TV
This is a video/chat website.  We haven’t done much here and by not much I mean nothing.  It could be a useful tool though.  Maybe a simple, users post questions and someone answers them in the video.

Blogger Chats
What used to be called Virtual Open Houses.  Open House implies something more than just a chat room that’s why we’re changing the name.  There has got to be a better and probably cheaper chat program out there.  I would encourage you to find it.  In some ways, I think that Ustream TV might be that tool, but I’m not sure.

How did you learn all this, stuff?

By “stuff” do you mean useless crap or do you mean social media marketing expertise?

Different perspectives will value social media indifferent ways.  They will also value the research and the learning process in different ways.  To some it will seem ridiculous that you spend all day on social networking sites.  I spend a lot of time “listening.”  And by “listening,” I mean reading.  I read a ton of blogs and I am always keeping an eye on Twitter.  In fact, I’ve gotten more out of my peer group on Twitter than I have at any conference.   Develop a strong network there and listen.

The real challenge is implementation, and knowing when to stop listening and start gettin ‘er done.

Good luck,

Drew

The Tug of the Plug

I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly difficult to reflect, unplug, and be thoughtful during the school year.  There is just so much going on, and there always seems like there is just one more thing to do. That’s why I so value the summer and especially these first couple of weeks in July.

My family and I are fortunate to have a place on a lake in northern Vermont.  My grandparents bought it in the 50’s and still remains in the family.  It’s in an area where there is little to no cell phone reception and up until this past year, we didn’t have cable or Internet access.   The last few years, it has been my habit that as soon as we wrap up our Annual Fund year, I book it for Vermont to spend a week or so unwinding and unplugging.

I have at times relished in and at times been frustrated by the lack of connectivity up there.   It’s wonderful to get away to a place where no one can reach you via email, cell phone or text message.   It’s nice to go days without checking Facebook and Twitter, and I enjoy getting news and highlights from the newspaper rather than a television set.

Drew and the Three-Year Old UnpluggedDays are still busy and packed with things to do, especially with a soon to be three year old, but there’s something that happens to your head when you unplug from all of this connectivity.  It’s almost as if I can feel my vision expanding like going from a old tube T.V. with a square screen to the rectangular wide-screen picture of a flat screen. After being unplugged for a couple of days, I remember old goals, think of new ways to do things, and feel seriously reenergized for the year ahead.

As I mentioned, this year was a bit different as I had access to the Internet and to cable that I hadn’t had in the past.  I found the pull of all of these “screens”, as William Powers describes them in Hamlet’s Blackberry (which I read on my Kindle, oh the hypocrisy!), hard to resist.  I’ve seen a few studies comparing the pull to stay connected to that of a drug addict’s urge.  I don’t doubt it.

I found that I could not help but check my iPhone.  I tried to limit myself to once a day and left it on the counter rather than carrying it around in my pocket.   I had some success with this, but since I use it as a camera, it was hard to do.  I was more or less able to leave the laptop closed and the T.V. off (except to catch the Tour), but I just could not put that damn phone down for an entire day.

What was I checking?  Well, I was reading the Globe and checking up on the Sox.  I was texting my wife or my friend summering in France.  I was taking photos and posting them to Instragram and Facebook.   And most egregiously, I was checking work email.

Not a single one of these things was pressing or necessary.   There really was no need to check other than to satisfy that urge—that tug.

Really, what’s the point?  Were those few minutes of connectivity really worth it?  Did I gain anything from them except for a quick buzz from being connected to my network of friends?

No.

I wear a Road I.D. bracelet that has emergency contact information on it in case I get in an accident while on my bike.  In addition to a few phone numbers, I also have “Live Deliberately” inscribed on it.  It’s taken from Thoreau’s Walden, and I had forgotten these two words were on my wrist until I was reminded of it the other day when I just happened to be looking at it.  With all of this pulling and tugging that comes from digital devices and screens, sometimes I forget to do just that.

Now it’s true that technology is incredible and connects us in ways that do bring us together.  Just look at my three year old and the way he uses Facetime to talk to his grandparents halfway across the country.   It’s also true that I run our school’s social media and thus am fully immersed in these tools.

That being said, I find immense value in unplugging and I often fantasize about wiping out my Facebook and other social media accounts and taking a multi-month hiatus just to see what would happen.

Maybe next time I go up to Vermont, I’ll just leave the damn iPhone at home.

Why I Can’t Quit My DIRECTV or Why Internet TV Is Useless

I so wanted to quit my DIRECTV.

I wanted to quit not because I disliked the service.  In fact, I love it, and perhaps that’s why I’m finding it so hard to leave.

Here’s what I like:

Channel selection.  It’s great.  At the basic level, I get all the channels that I would ever want to watch including NESN, ESPN, BBC America, The Travel Channel, The Discovery Channel, The Food Network and The Cooking Channel.

Our current favorite shows: Downton Abbey, any of Anthony Bourdain’s shows, my wife watches anything on the Cooking Channel and Food Network.

The picture is clear and sharp.  I had cable previous to my DIRECTV and it was crap.  DIRECTV’s picture is ten times better.

Their customer service is top notch.  No confusing mazes when you call their 800 number, bright, upbeat, and extremely helpful people when you call, the few issues I’ve ever had have been fixed almost immediately.  Their Twitter support is useless, but otherwise it’s overall great customer service.

Their interface.  It’s intuitive, bright and aesthetically pleasing.  I’ve used cable interfaces, and I can’t figure it out.  The channel order doesn’t make any sense and it’s ugly.  Plus I can easily record shows from my iPhone.

So why would I leave?

The one negative?  The price.  It costs me something like $95 a month.

So I bought a Roku hoping to save some cash and jump into the new hot thing.  Perhaps given my love of my current service, it’s not surprising that I’m disappointed with the Roku.

Here was my original idea:

Buy a Roku box – initial investment of $65
Subscribe to: MLB, NFL, & NBA (Sorry NHL) – $125,  $299, for a total of $593
I already have Netflix – $8.99
And I’m an Amazon Prime Member – $45 (student discount don’t ask me why?)

This would save me $300 in the first year and more thereafter especially given the Celtics season and hopes for the future.

Unfortunately, there were a few hitches in this pan.  One is that local teams are blacked out on these season subscription packages.  For MLB it’s 90 minutes after the end of the game.  On nights that Josh Beckett’s pitching, that literally means tomorrow. *Update* This is further proof that the west coast is the best place to live if you’re an east coast sports fan.  Football starts at 10 a.m. and even when Beckett pitches, Sox games wrap up before 9 p.m. Plus, you have a couple of decent teams to root for as you ‘B’ teams in the 49er’s and the Giants.

The other issue is the content.  Both the streaming on Netflix and the content available for free on Amazon Prime is, frankly, 97% crap.  It just stinks.  The same goes for all of the Internet TV channels on Roku.  They are all crap.  I’m all for choice and diversity, but when it’s all crap, then it’s not choice and it’s not diversity.  It’s just crap.

The interface.  While it looks nice, it’s impossible to find anything.  There’s just too much garbage.  I don’t want to have to go to 7 different services to get the content I want.  I want to go to one.  I also don’t want to wade through piles of garbage shows to find something that’s barely worth watching.

The service.  Ten or fifteen minutes into streaming something, the audio gets all screwed up turning Dora into a Syth Lord.  *Update* Upon further reflection, the distortion sounds more like the demon from the Exorcist I’ve googled it, and every message board talks about the lousy customer service Roku has, and I’m still looking for an answer.

So now I’ve got a Roku currently designated to streaming Dora the Explorer.   And that’s about as useful as I find this thing right now.

What to write when you’ve got nothing to say

This blog, like many others I’m sure, tends to go through long periods of neglect followed by a short flurry of activity until neglect creeps in again.

Of course I don’ t do this on purpose. Keeping up content is tough. It’s hard to find the inspiration, time, and a good topic. But often times, it’s because I’ve already written what I’m working through; I’ve just put it down in my head, and not on paper. And there the idea sits, unfinished, in rough-draft, an idea, thought, or something I’m working through. I’ll spend quite a bit of time working on one. I’ll revise, restart, redact, and reword it over and over in my head, just as if I was typing. This is how my brain works. It’s how I wrote my best man speech for my brother’s wedding. I say wrote, although I never put a pen to a piece of paper. I just went through the speech over and over again for three days as if I was writing a paper in my mind.

Writing for me has always been therapeutic—a way to visualize my thoughts and gain a new perspective. I was had a former roommate give my then current roommate that “The only way Drew ca. Communicate is through writing.”.

I fear that by not putting these ideas down on paper, I’m not getting as much benefit from the reflective process as I should. For one, processing information this way requires a lot of bandwidth. It’s like trying to put the waterflow of a firehouse through a drinking straw. The CPU just gets maxed out. It takes an incredible amount of time and concentration to get thoughts out and process them this way.

Writing though, allows ideas to flow more freely and it’s much easier to extract examine ideas. It’s much easier to read, revise and rework a piece on your computer screen than it is in your head. I’m able to complete ideas in a way that I can’t to do by running through these ideas in my head all day long. It also takes way less time as by having pieces of the idea written down, I don’t need to revisit it from the beginning each time. This is, of course, all pretty basic stuff here, but maybe writing it down will make it set in and get me to post here more often.

So there you go. When you don’t have anything to write, write about writing.

Getting away, reflection, and simplifying

When I first started here, I remember someone telling me that it was important to get away.  Actually, I think they were telling me about someone who told them it was important to get away, but I inferred that they agreed with that advice.

In my first year here, I remember the odd feeling of getting in my car and realizing that I had not been in it for over a week.   That little trip to Groton Market was the first time I’d been off campus in 7 days.

Certainly last year, I realized the importance of getting out and getting space.  For nothing else then to change the scenery and fight off cabin fever.  It breaks up the monotony and force you to change your rhythm.  In my case, I often head to my uncle’s and aunt’s the Burlington area.  That 3.5 hour drive also provides me the benefit of reflection.  Even just 24 hours away like this past weekend help me to refocus,

The boy enjoying some cold VT air during our 24 hours away

re-center, re-energize and re-prioritize.

It’s not that I find immediate inspiration on these trips—there is no ‘ah-ha” moment.  Rather it is that I find my mind more open to receiving inspiration.  I allow myself to soak in life.

I know I sound like I’m getting my zen on, and in some ways I am.  A book and a film have me thinking more about what I consume and my footprint that I create.  The Omnivores Dilemma is equal parts blowing my mind and scaring the shit out of me.  Scaring me mostly because there seems to be so little I can do to fight it.  Shopping local for food is easyier in the summer.  The winter months prove a challenge though.  Even then, there’s only so much you can do.

180° South has me thinking about sustainability and nature.  Also irony in that the founders of the two largest outdoor gear/clothing companies which have thrived on American consumerism are featured in it as activists and environmentalists.  I think they are now, and probably were in the past.  It’s just odd to me that their passion for the outdoors and nature lead them to create these companies which I now see on every prep school kid here.  As for myself, I’m no better.  Do I really need the 10 pairs of pants and 20 sweaters in my closet right now?  Probably not. They certainly don’t make me any happier.   If I go in, purge and toss eyverything out, then what?  Will that make a difference?  In the movie, Yvon Chouinard says that the hardest thing to do in life is to simplify.  I would suggest that maintaining that simplicity is just as, and perhaps more, challenging.

I think I will try to pare down my wardrobe.  I’ll also try to resist the urge to buy the next great thing.  When it comes to food, I’ll try to shop more locally.  I’m not planning on quitting my job and jumping on a boat to Patagonia, but at least that’s always an option.  It’s way down on the list, but it’s on the list.

Live Streaming Revisited and Improved

You’ll remember (or perhaps not) that I had some surprising success last year live streaming an event here know as Lessons and Carols.  Last year, it was a simple one camera in the back of the Chapel hooked into my MacBook Pro.  I had a wireless network that I patched into and streamed the event using Ustream.tv.

I was shocked when hundreds tuned in to watch the event live and another 1,600 or so have watched the video.  In the spring I increased the degree of difficulty by adding a second camera, and basically jerry-rigging a way to combine the two streams using two MacBook Pros and Skype.

I didn’t want to go through that again, so I consulted with my now real world (formerly just Twitter) friend Hans Mundahl at New Hampton School.  Here’s the set-up I came up with.  Of course, I did this all the week before the event.  Why do things in August when you can do them under the gun.

Materials:

2 cameras (one decent, one not)

1 Digital Recorder (I use this as an external Mic.  You could just use the camera mic)

2 8-pin to 4-pin FireWire cables

2 8-pin FireWire cables

2 100 ft Cat 5 (ethernet) cables

4 Cat 5 to 8-pin FireWire converter boxes

1 iMac connected to the Intertubes

3 extension cords

3 power strips

The Boxes

These little babies were the key to having two cameras (that and the iMac with two FireWire inputs).  I’m not going to mention that it took me an entire day to figure out why they weren’t working only to realize that the iMac’s software hadn’t been updated since the Bush administration.

Video over cat-5 has a range of 300m (330ft for us Americans).  This allowed me to set up the cameras at opposite side of the Chapel, and run the cables underneath the floor, along the wall, and into the sacristy in the back of the Chapel where I was set up with my iMac.  I simply set the camera up, plugged in the FireWire to the camera and then to the converter box, plugged the cat-5 into the box and turned on the power.  That cat-5 ran into another converter box and from there I ran an 8-pin FireWire from the box directly into the iMac.

Feeding the stream directly into the iMac meant that I didn’t need to deal with a video mixer or any other equipment.  I did end up having to purchase Ustream’s Producer Pro which I think was maybe $100 or $200, but way cheaper and easier than a mixer.  Here’s what my screen looked like:

The one problem I ran into (which resulted in F bombs in the sacristy) was a bandwidth issue.  The system kept freezing and crashing for the first 30 minutes until I turned down the quality of the stream.  It turns out that we don’t have very fast upload speeds here and even though I was hardwired in, I was trying to push water from a fire hose through a soda straw.  Once I turned it down to the lowest setting, everything started working just fine.  We had 300 watch it live, and the recording has been seen over 1,000 times as well.  The video is up on Vimeo.  Pro Tip: With Ustream you can sign up to suppress ads for one month, and then cancel.  If you download your video before you cancel, it doesn’t have ads.  You can then upload it to Vimeo where you will have a video of your event without annoying David Hasselhoff ads.  

The Bill

This year wasn’t cheap.  I probably spent close to $1,500 to get everything set up and we did pay to suppress ads.  $1,000 of that was a one-time cost though, and I should have to spend any more on the tech stuff unless I want to upgrade my cameras (which I do).

Thanks again to @hansmundahl for all of the help!