The Unbelievable Reality of the Sandy Hook Shooting Three Years Later

Sandy Hook Three Years LaterIt’s been three years since the horrific Sandy Hook School shooting that killed 26 innocent people – 20 of them small children no more than six or seven years of age. They should be three years older now – moving on with their precious lives – as their parents had planned.

What I find more unbelievable than the gruesome reality of this heartbreaking event is that there are law-abiding citizens in this country who admit they have a hard time believing it ever happened. My adult children, who are musicians and tour and travel the country extensively, have met a few of them this year.

My son told me he was drawn into conversation with a disbeliever at a coffee shop in Virginia the morning a TV reporter and cameraman from a Roanoke TV station were shot dead on the air. He was an Iraq-Afghanistan war veteran from Idaho who brought up shootings and then Sandy Hook, admitting that he didn’t believe it happened. It didn’t matter that my son grew up in Sandy Hook and went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. The man just shook his head in denial and walked away. What more could my son say? He succeeded in no breakthrough.

Yes, the shooting here was unbelievable, and because of that, I am almost willing to grant a “grain of salt” to disbelievers from other parts of the country, influenced by biased media or conspiracy theories. They don’t live here. Distance makes it unreal – and surreal – even to those of us who do.

The so-called “Truthers” continue to seek ways to discredit the “story.” Some have actually confronted leaders in our community for that purpose. They’ve written outlandish books about the shooting that, to their way of thinking, proves it never happened, and they work to spread their delusional views on social media. What is crazy to me is that people are actually buying into this “idiocracy” and joining in by cruelly hurting the very people who have lost the most.

Yes, what happened here is unbelievable. But it happened. Why would a community fabricate such a thing?

In my heart, I wish the “Truthers” – which is such a blatant misnomer – were right. This tragedy should never have happened. But the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 most certainly did, and has gone down in history as one of the worst mass shootings in this country’s history.

This is not fiction. It is not a made up horror story. Just ask the parents who lost their children that day, and mourn them every day.

This pain is real. And since that intensely bright, sunny winter day in the midst of our holiday season that screeched to a panic-stricken halt, shaking this community to its very foundation with grief unimaginable, more lives have been lost because of mass shootings and gun violence.

What is more unbelievable to me is why?


Don’t Call Me a Copywriter – I Write Content

CSwainLogo 2

The first thing I do after walking into the restaurant and into the room reserved for the networking meeting is wave to the attending waitress and order a beer. Then I turn to the greeter who signs me in with a warm smile and gives me my pre-printed nametag, conveniently swinging on a lanyard – Colleen Swain, Content Writer. I’m relieved about the lanyard because I don’t like fumbling with pinning the nametag on my jacket, or worrying about pinning it wrong. Is it the right or left side? I can never remember. Centering it in the middle works for me.

I’m a leftie, but I say I’m ambidextrous – sort of. When I was little, my mom insisted that I eat with my right hand. She’d say, “I won’t have you banging elbows with people at the table.” I navigate my computer mouse with my right hand, too. It just feels right. (no pun intended) Other than that, I’m very much left-handed. So, the networking etiquette of remembering which side to wear a nametag can be a problem.

It takes a while for me to warm up at these networking events. The beer helps. I take a modest sip and scan the room looking for a familiar face, but remembering names of people I’ve met before  is another problem. Thank goodness for those nametags.

What Do You Do?

A woman, perhaps in her fifties, walks up to me. We haven’t met before. I can’t help feeling a little awkward staring at her chest to read her name and what she does for a living, even though she’s staring at my chest too. And then this happens:

“A content writer, eh?” So you’re a copywriter?” An image of Peggy Olson in a scene from “Mad Men” pitching a concept for selling lipstick flashes before me.

I run my tongue over my teeth, smile, and say, “Well, not exactly.”

Then I try to explain what I do.

“I’ve written ads, but my expertise is focused more on writing content that will help a business promote their brand online as well as in print.”

“Oh,” she says. She gives me a blank look. “So, what do you mean by ‘content’?

That’s when I realize that maybe to her the term “content” means stuff contained in something, like the percentage of hops in my beer.

The Internet Changes Everything

I flash back to the mid 90s, before computers changed how we work. I can see myself typing an inter-office memo using an IBM electric typewriter, making copies on a Xerox copier and then walking around the office to manually deliver them to each employee, (no e-mail). I’d archive the original in a three-ring binder stored with other binders dated by year in a jammed-full file cabinet. What a waste of paper, space, and time back then!

Then I flash forward to 2000. By then, my boss, the communications director, was pressuring the CEO to invest in building a website. “It’s the future we can’t afford to ignore,” he said. It was a hard sell. We got the go-ahead, but we had no idea how to do it. We were a department of marketing wordsmiths – not techies. This new language of web code was way over our heads. We had no choice but to succumb to the mercy of programmers – and they had no concept of marketing whatsoever.

It was a learn-as-you-go strategy, if you can call it that. We ended up with hundreds of web pages crammed with hard-to-read copy.

We had to fix it.

That’s about when I attended my first seminar on website writing and was tasked to bring back what I learned to the marketing team. It was called “How to Write Killer Content” with Gerry McGovern, offered by Marketing Profs, a leading educational training resource for marketers.

That may have been the first time I heard the term “content” in relation to writing for the Web. And, I realize, this may be the first time my new acquaintance – her nametag says “Accountant” – has met someone who writes it.

As Simon Dumenco, columnist for Advertising Age, put it, “I remember when people first started referring to ‘content.’ The term really gained currency circa Web 1.0 – during that moment when coders gained the upper-hand, and creative types, backed into a corner, felt compelled to defensively declare things like ‘Content is King’ … When I was a kid, nobody talked about words and pictures as ‘content.’” (Yup! I remember.)

At the seminar, I also remember noticing a young woman sitting in the back of the room. She was on the Marketing Profs team and she was monitoring McGovern’s presentation. I don’t know what her title was then but Ann Handley has built herself a reputation in the marketing world as a top digital marketer and writer. She is now their Chief Content Officer. Way to go!

And I am a content writer. But even at my last full-time job, just a few years back, that wasn’t my title. It was “Copywriter,” though I wasn’t writing ads. My job was to help the SEO Manager get our company website ranked on the first page of Google. (Hmmm. My accountant friend definitely won’t know what SEO means.) That was just about the time when Google wised up to the bad practices of SEO (search engine optimization) that used link-building trickery and poor-quality, keyword-stuffed writing spitted out by writers working for content mills. I never bought into it.

Unfortunately, now that I’m freelance, I’m still competing with lower-paid content-mill writers, though all signals point to the demise of content mills. The trend – finally – is to produce quality content that delivers value. Thank you Google. “Content is King” after all.

Gerry McGovern said as much in the Introduction of his book, Killer Web Content, “The Web runs on content. It is its hidden asset, its gold. Yet for so long it has been treated like coal – a low-grade, low-cost commodity best published in bulk… I have always taken a content first, technology second approach…the best website creators know that it’s the content that counts now.” Yes! And this was before Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm changes were made to ensure quality content on the Web.

Ann Handley, in her book, Everybody Writes, stated, “Writing matters more now, not less. Our online words are our emissaries: They tell our customers who we are…and that means you have to put a new value on an often-overlooked skill…how to write, and how to tell a true story well.”

What Is Content?

So what do I mean by content? I tell my “numbers” lady that it’s everything she finds online to read, listen to or watch – packaged in different ways – from flash ads to YouTube videos to articles she finds when searching for info on anything that may interest her, like the latest tax codes. It’s also print stuff, such as junk mail, or the brochure she picks up at her doctor’s office.

I love to write – always have. And, yes, I’ve worked as a copywriter in the past, but the term “content writer” better describes what I do now.

“I get it,” she says, as we walk together to the buffet table to fill our plates with appetizers, “So, if I ever want a website for my business, you can write it for me?”

“Absolutely. And anything else you may need to market your accounting business.”

We join a table of other attendees and sit down to make new contacts.

And then we come to the portion of the meeting when each person in the room stands up, introduces themselves and gives a very brief (under one minute) “elevator speech’ about what they do.

Just when I decide which hand to hold my fork – it’s always a conscious decision and sometimes it’s my left (sorry Mom!) – it’s my turn.

“Hi, I’m Colleen Swain. I’m a content writer. In essence, I’m a brand storyteller. I help businesses, from startups to national corporations, build awareness about their brand by crafting clear, concise content for their web and print communications that is original, engaging, optimized, and shared.”


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A Memory of a Long Ago Summer Stays with Me Still

Zinnias and Polished Shoes

It’s odd how a taste, a smell or an action can stir the senses into recalling a memory. The zinnias in my garden have that effect on me, as does biting into a peach or rubbing shoe polish into old leather. All these things make me think of another summer, when I was a little girl, with my grandfather.

My grandparents lived in Ottawa, Ontario. We visited them every summer for two weeks. It was the only time my Canadian mom got to see them. I remember how she’d cry in the car each time we left to go back home. She’d cry until we crossed over the border back into New York State and then she’d stay quiet throughout the 10-hour ride home to Connecticut.

That summer, for whatever reason, my parents decided to let me stay with my grandparents until it was time for school. They would come back for me at the end of August. Maybe it was to give me my first experience away from home. Maybe it was to give my mom another visit. I don’t know the reason why. I was never told. I was nine years old.Garden Zinnias

On this summer day, as I cut zinnias for a fresh bouquet, I can actually see myself walking hand-in-hand with my grandfather. Our walks were ours alone.

He was a cobbler with his own shoe repair shop. I thought that was pretty special. It became a ritual for me to meet him there at the end of the day to share his walk back home. I did this all by myself. I walked one block down Second Avenue, then took a left onto Bank Street and walked two blocks more until I reached a storefront with a large plate glass window. Looking in I could see him standing behind a worktable, a dark apron covering a blue work shirt with sleeves rolled up showing sinewy arms. His hands were large and his fingers were long, with fingertips stained black from his work.

Polished Shoes and ZinniasI’d open the door and breathe deep the smell of leather and shoe polish that filled the small room tinged with cold fluorescent light. Behind my grandfather were shelves from floor to ceiling filled with neat rows of shoes and boots in all sizes and colors, made to look new again.

My grandfather was tall. He would look down at me, his blue eyes peering over the edge of silver-framed glasses. A smile would soften his angular face and, in a low voice he would say my name with a hint of an accent. “Kalinka. Is it time already?” (The nickname he called me, which was a variation of my name, is Russian and means “red juniper berry.”)

He would wipe his hands on his apron and then take if off and carefully hang it on a peg in the corner of the room. Next to the apron was a metal circle of keys. He’d take them down and prepare to lock up. He didn’t say much but that was fine. I was content to just sit there on a stool by the customer counter and watch him as he put his work “to bed.”

After locking up, we would always stop at the fruit stand outside the small grocery store next door to his shop. Peaches were in season then. He’d let me select enough to fill a yellow mesh bag. He’d weigh the bag and then pull out some coin from his pocket and help me count out the exact amount to pay the grocer. (It was my grandfather who taught me how to count change. He always said to start with the quarters.) Then he would cradle the bag in the crook of one arm, take my hand, so small, in his big one, and we’d start our walk home.

Zinnias in the GardenSometimes we’d walk a different route from the one I’d taken, through a park that had several large circular flowerbeds full of zinnias in different sizes, shapes and in brilliant colors – the flowers that were in bloom that time of year. I loved to run around the perimeters until I got dizzy. My grandfather would quietly laugh – his voice was always soft and low – as he watched me. “Come Kalinka, it’s getting late. Your Nanny and our supper are waiting for us.”Zinnias and Peaches on the Kitchen Windowsill

Then we would continue on our way with me trying in vain to match my steps with his long, slow stride. We would always make it home just in time – 6 o’clock – for supper.

Afterwards, we would sit together in green wicker chairs on the long veranda of my grandparents’ house until it got dark, listening to the quieting city – eating peaches.

As I arrange my fresh-cut flowers this serene summer day, I can almost hear the sound of his voice. “Kalinka, will you be coming to meet me at the shop tomorrow? ”

“Yes, Bompa. (My name for him.) And let’s go to the park again. I want to see the zinnias.”

It is a satisfying memory, so sweet in its simplicity. Why it has stuck with me all these years, I don’t know. It represents but one small fraction of the whole of me, recalled every time I taste a peach, sniff polished leather, or pick zinnias from my garden.

To this day, I love that he called me “Kalinka.”

Zinnias Shu Crop

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A New Year Message for Peace, Hope, Change

Peace. Hope. Change

There are no words to express what has happened here, in my community of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, at a time of year when the innocence of all children defines the magic of the holiday spirit.


We can’t bring back what we as a community, as a nation, have lost.


But we can, and must, stop such great loss from happening again.


My message for this new year is simple:


Peace.    Hope.    Change.


We can do this —- for the children.


“Give peace a chance.” — John Lennon