Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Passage of Time

It was a photo of reasonable quality.

It had a sepia tone and the corners had curled. I imagine it might have a musty, papery smell that would make you want to inhale deeply and breathe in its age and memories. I say "imagine" because I could not touch or hold the photo, but only view it on my computer screen.

It was a school photo taken during the middle of winter in a different era. The trees in the background were gaunt and sickly-looking, deprived of their leaves. The students were lined up in the foreground and wore heavy, black blazers with warm, grey flannel trousers.

It seemed cold there.

He sat cross legged on the floor, arms firmly folded. The second person from the left, two rows from the front. Sporting a quiff of mousy-brown hair and with a pair of government-issued spectacles planted squarely on his face, he was surrounded by his grinning peers. He was the epitome of seriousness, staring ahead at the camera with a fixed intensity. He was a mere boy in his early childhood years. He was looking straight back at me.

My father, the schoolboy. My father, who turned 70 this week.

Photo credit: ToniVC (Flickr Creative Commons)

Time moves on

Time marches swiftly on. It waits for nothing and no man.

The years have accumulated and my father celebrated a significant milestone this week. He will reflect on the photograph taken at that school in those early years and likely remember the anticipation he felt at all that his life would come to hold.

He will look back on the course that his life took and think back to the things he achieved that could never have been imagined before.

His marriage to a local woman with British-Canadian heritage.

The birth of two healthy children into a loving family.

The fulfillment of business interests and the nurturing of passions - to travel abroad, to create in the garden, to explore closer to home.

A life unexpected.

The next generation

To my own schoolboy photo and that familiar mop of hair. The same serious face, this time touched with a hint of a grin. Taller. Skinnier. A more inquisitive nature. Similar but different.

Time moves forward and this life took varied and unexpected turns.

My own journey.

Undergraduate study in the Midlands, returning south to the family home, Sarah, my dogs, an old English cottage, leaving England for Canada, crossing Canada, working for foreign governments, reconnecting with my grandfather's own story, departing Canada and then...

To Sydney, Australia and a life far removed.

First marriage then loss, creating a nest, growing a family. Three countries, three continents, and soon three people.  

New beginnings

Several weeks have passed since the announcement of my big news.

There is a noticeable spring in our steps and anticipation in the air. My wife's belly grows bigger and my dog and I regard each other knowingly. Life is about to change.

It will never be as it was. New responsibilities lie ahead for this father-to-be. A traffic light of emotions moves hourly from nervousness to slightly overwhelmed to entirely overjoyed.

But time will continue to pass relentlessly.

The little 'he' or 'she' will grow quickly and their own life will begin to take shape. One day, they will have their own school photo. It will capture a precious moment in time as mine and my father's did.

My first child will stand to attention, formed up in front of the photographer.

Will they wear that trademark seriousness upon their face? Will they stare intensely at the camera? Will they consider their unfolding life, full of promise and potential, opportunity and expectation - and, born into Sydney, poles apart from my own and my father's?

As one generation celebrates a milestone, a new generation waits patiently. The next chapter in our lives has begun and my little one's journey in life has started.

I wonder just how extraordinary it will be.

Did your child's journey develop differently to your own? Did you raise your children internationally? How have things turned out?

Do provide any pearls of wisdom for this father-to-be below or simply share your own generational experiences.

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Friday, 18 May 2012

The Day Social Media Took Over My Life

The day started out much like any other.

I woke up, showered, got dressed, walked the dog, wolfed down my breakfast, and jumped into my car for the daily commute to Sydney.

My iPhone sat expectantly by my side on the journey in. I duly obliged it by checking my Twitter account. Then my Facebook page. Then Google+.

Once in the office, I logged on to Hootsuite to check the early morning tweets from my follow lists in Australia and further afield. Simultaneously, I went back into Facebook to update the ISOALLO fan page and opened LinkedIn to respond to an invitation to connect (then updated my profile, searched for new connections, and shared a link to my latest blog post).

A quick check of my Pinterest board and a hunt around for possible friends on Goodreads, before I finally settled down to do some 'paid' work. It was now 10am but I remembered I had to set up a few scheduled tweets for the remainder of the day. I also wanted to read the online newspapers and share a couple of articles with the Twitterverse when...

...damn it, I'd completely forgotten to share all of this on ISOALLO's Google+ page, Digg, Delicious and StumbleUpon, which would take at least another half hour. By now, I'd received an email with a link to the latest social media tool "well worth looking at" and "the next BIG thing". It was suddenly midday and my boss needed a document from me urgently. I was stressed out, overwhelmed, and rapidly losing my day to what?

Overcommitment? Procrastination? Or was social media plainly taking over my life?

Photo credit: Emilie Ogez (Flickr Creative Commons)

I'm not alone

The sad thing was that this day was much like any other. My use of social media had spiralled out of control.

I'm spending half of my day moving between my various social media platforms but I know I'm not alone in this. Whether we're expats, Sydneysiders, travellers or cultural spelunkers (my personal favourite), it's obvious we're spending a LOT of time twittering, friending, stumbling, posturing and plus one-ing.

What's more, with my the majority of my community spread to the four corners of the globe, it's proving to be a challenge to manage with different timezones, varying attitudes, and diverse tastes and preferences to take into account.

Since the arrival of social media and then the birth of my blog, I've become hardwired to follow and to share, to like and to recommend.

My use of social media is borderline obsessive.

Why this is bad

It can be a trap.

For me, the reality about social media is that it sucks the time out of my life. I can be scanning through Facebook updates and checking Twitter lists when, the next thing I know, an hour or two has passed. Social media is engaging, entertaining, informative and entirely seductive by nature - and it is this that swallows up so much of my time. Every single day.

It's not productive.

Without discipline and self-control, social media can be overwhelming and distracting. It's far too easy to switch seamlessly between the different apps without stopping to determine what's actually been achieved.

Did I get that article written? Did I brainstorm future blog post ideas? Did I send out that feature outline?

No, of course I didn't because I'm drifting through a world of information overload with little sense of what is being achieved on this day. Worse still, my mind has been permanently set to 'scan' mode. I can no longer digest information and sweetly savour its message. Now I skim, scan and send out. 

It stops me from doing what I love.

It's impossible to write as often and as much when I'm flicking between Digg and Delicious. Wasting most of my morning on social media stops me from writing for an audience where my voice is actually welcome. Instead, my time is spent time putting words out into an electronic universe that at times can feel like a black hole.

So what to do?

Social media is a necessary evil in the blogging world - and in society at large to some extent.

We need it to connect, to share, to build an audience and to engage. However, it's a largely unreal world. I don't see people face-to-face and conversation is limited to 140 letters. It can be a frustrating, often intimidating environment - and one without obvious reward.

But it's not all bad.

I appreciate and enjoy my time online catching up with old friends and new acquaintances. I've had the privilege of meeting interesting people and the pleasure of discovering fascinating material. Social media plays an important role in its own distinct way. It’s a means of being entertained and educated but, like anything, it should be enjoyed in moderation.

And this goes to the heart of my own social media use.

It's unhealthy for any one thing to take up so much of my time. If it’s all about social media all of the time, it can quickly become a chore, not a pleasure.

Like anything, it's about balance and it's about being clever with my time.
How much time do you spend on social media? Do you think it's too much?

PS. Try this handy on-screen tool, recommended by The Write Practice, as a way to manage the time you spend on social media. Or, indeed, on anything.

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Wednesday, 9 May 2012

My Big News

It's been a week for big news here at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary.

First of all, I got to the finals of the Best Australian Blogs 2012 competition (by the way, the winner is announced on 10 May).

Now I get to share my biggest news of all.

This journey is about to take an incredible and exciting turn because... we're having a baby!

Photo credit: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I'm as proud as punch to share this news. I've been keeping it to myself for what seems like ages.

On 12 November, our small family will grow as a new addition arrives. He or she will emerge to a life we've created over here by the ocean and our little Scorpio boy or girl, our very own Australian water baby, will hopefully thrive.

I already have the mini-Speedos lined up, the Malibu surfboard picked out. It's too soon to go looking for  sunnies and board shorts but I'm confident the kid will like my choice of thongs.

I can't describe how strange it is to patiently wait for the arrival of a baby born to a country not my own, but it's exciting and quite different and even slightly sublime.

We've travelled a long road to get here.

Physically, we've covered thousands of kilometres and crossed continents to arrive at this place. To reach a point in time where we feel settled and ready to be good parents.

Emotionally, the road has been just as long. 

Fraught with anxiety and fear, the path hasn't been easy for us but, with an outcome like this, it's no longer of consequence. We're here, we're happy, and we plan to enjoy this tiny creation for all it's worth.

There will no doubt be challenges ahead. 

We'll be raising a child with parents from opposite sides of this planet. It will be born into a world of uncertain economic times albeit entering into a country that, for now, is safe and still strong.

This new life brings with it great hope and anticipation.

This baby will be loved by its British-Aussie parents. It will be adored by its international family - in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, America and here in Oz. And this 'little Vegemite' will share in the immense experiences and joy that we've found through travel and on our journey so far.

This week has been a truly great week and I'm so pleased to be able to share my big news with you here today.

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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

I'm a Finalist! (So I'm Good At What I Do, Right?)

I didn't see this coming.

I turned on my Twitter feed a few days ago to some incredible news.

In Search of a Life Less Ordinary had been selected as a finalist in the personal/lifestyle category of the Best Australian Blogs 2012 competition organised by the Sydney Writers' Centre.

As one of only eight finalists in this category and chosen from 1,100 submitted blogs, it was the kind of news that made me stare at the screen of my laptop, mouth agape and eyes agog.

I'd completed the online application with no serious aspirations of any kind. This was a national competition that attracts vast numbers of highly talented bloggers from across Australia's blogosphere and my little website about my small journey was a far cry from the power bloggers attracting hundreds of comments and gazillions of page hits on any given day.

When the finalists were announced and my name was included, I sat and stared, maybe even dribbled slightly. The realisation kicked in that I was now a finalist in a major blogging competition run by writers and focused almost entirely on writing.

This therefore makes me good at writing what I write... right?

Photo credit: Steven Depolo (Creative Commons)

There are great writers out there

I'd like to believe I'm a strong writer but there's a lot of competition out there. A vast group of talented writers producing fantastic content on a regular basis.

Some make unbelievable noise, generate massive followings, receive comments by the bucket load, and gain enough page hits to make you gaze at their sites in awe.

Others won't ever be discovered. There are hugely exciting blogs down under that will never make it beyond their own small communities and many great writers that may never make it out from amongst the ever-increasing Internet chatter.

My own writing is just one small voice amongst this blogging cacophony and, judging by the calibre of the writing in this popular competition, I am up against some pretty competent scribes.

So how can I ever really know if what I write on this page is worthy of my readers' loyalty?

Feedback is king

As bloggers and writers, the most pressing dilemma is whether we write the kinds of things our readers want to hear about and whether we write this well.

One solution and a veritable golden nugget is constructive feedback.

We can search for this through our blog post comments, but comments are generally positive in nature. I'll occasionally receive a useful critique of my work or a positive suggestion to take a different direction. In most cases, blog readers may be less likely to be negative if there's a chance it could impact upon their perceived standing across the wider blogging community.

I get that, I do.

We can gauge our writing quality by page views and hits, but does this honestly tell us what we're doing right and where our strengths can be found? If I avoid posting for a week or two, I'll watch the page views rise. If I post 3 or 4 times in a week, I'll see the numbers drop.

I recently wrote about blogging frequency and, judging by the reaction, most of you agree that blogging more often doesn't make for better reading.

Maybe at the heart of good writing and blogging, alongside raw ability, is reliable gut instinct and a knack for knowing what works well with a commitment to writing the very best you can.
Writing recognition rules

The truth is that it's impossible to ever fully know whether what we write is... well... right.

But the greatest feedback. The most inspirational feedback. Surely that comes from making the finals of #BestBlogs2012 and getting affirmation that your work is heading in the right direction (even if I do say so myself).

In a few day's time, the esteemed judges of the Best Australian Blogs 2012 will decide whether my writing stacks up and if In Search of a Life Less Ordinary should be more than a finalist.

Whatever the outcome, it's reward enough to know that a major city's writing centre running a national blogging competition with a 70%  focus on writing ability has chosen my work to be in its select list of finalists. It confirms that I'm on the right track and gives me growing confidence in my craft.

I'm forever grateful for this blog and the platform it's provided. I'm entirely appreciative of my loyal audience - expats, travellers, nomads, wanderlusts, the plain curious, and of course Sydneysiders and Australians alike - and the opportunity I've been given to share my search for that path less ordinary, this life lived abroad.

My aim has always been to write well and seek a positive reaction to that writing. Becoming a finalist in the #BestBlogs2012 proves that I must be doing something right... right?

So how do you know if you're any good at writing what you write? What do you rely on to improve your craft?

Share with me in the comments below.

PS. You can also vote for In Search of a Life Less Ordinary in the People's Choice Awards. Simply follow this link and search for the blog to cast your vote: Vote here

PPS. A big congrats to the other finalists in the personal/lifestyle category who are: All Consuming, Edenland, Interiors Addict, Magento Bold too!, Not Quite Nigella, Taste Explorer and Tune Into Radio Carly.

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To contact me about writing or advertising opportunities, email mail@russellvjward.com