Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Local Treasures

Some weeks are busier than others. Some weeks requre more effort than most. Some weeks leave you feeling drained.

Sometimes life simply gets in the way.

Then an unexpected treasure reveals itself. A little gem that reminds you why you do what you do, why you choose to live where you live.

Curl Curl Lagoon.  Photo credit: RussellVJWard

A week to remember

A few weeks ago, my wife had a bit of a near miss.

A major storm hit Sydney mid-week. The following morning, I stood on our back deck and surveyed the scene. We were lucky to have escaped with no damage.

Sarah called me on my way to work less than twenty minutes later. In tears, she struggled to explain what was wrong. I tried hard not to conjure up terrible images in my mind. At the time, I thought our life was about to take a dramatic change in direction - and probably for the worse.

It transpired that a huge ghost gum tree in our garden had toppled over as my wife hung the washing out to dry. Hearing several sharp cracks from the base of the tree, she ran. She didn't hesitate. She didn't look back. She just ran.

As she flew down the steps by our house, the bushy top of the tree fell down around her. Thankfully unhurt, the washing line where she'd stood only moments before was not so lucky, destroyed by the thick trunk which buried itself deep in the sodden ground.

This week she had her 20-week pregnancy scan and I was on tenterhooks for days. The events of the week before no doubt had something to do with it. That feeling that life can throw up so many unexpected twists and turns. The reality that life can change so quickly.

The scan however was great and we have an amazing little boy or girl growing away.

Welcome relief

The weekend after the week-that-was, we found ourselves sat on the sand by a small protected lagoon at Curl Curl, a suburb on the Northern Beaches.

Our dog, Milo, swam after his tennis ball in the water as my wife and I lazed in the late afternoon sun.

In the distance, a dog played in the lagoon's shallows, surfers carried their longboards over the sand, and a flock of gulls headed out to sea. A band played in the surf club on the north side of the lagoon, led by a female singer with a wonderfully laid-back and mellow voice.

The sunlight created a reflection of the lagoon's ripples over the nearby bushes in a rhythmic, swaying pattern, those same bushes mirrored back on the water's broken skin.

We had music, sunshine, water and wildlife. This small part of the world was at peace with itself and we felt equally contented as the light slowly started to fade on this winter's day.

That's right, on this winter's day.

Twenty degrees, the sun shining, the two of us stretched out on our backs on the sand, our pup swimming around in the salt water.

There aren't many places where winter is like this. It's almost hard to believe unless you know this country well.

It was an unexpected weekend treasure.

Life's little treasures

The afternoon reminded me how grateful I should be for what I have. How thankful I must be for every passing day that my pregnant wife's health is on track. And how lucky I am to experience environments like these surrounded by my young and growing family.

As time passes, I've become a true believer in taking stock of what you have at home and savouring precious moments like this simple treasure by the beach.

But you don't have to live by the beach or be able to doze under a winter's sun. It doesn't really matter where you are or what you have. You may think my life journey a touch extreme, maybe yours is less so, but so what?

Whatever your deal, whatever your story, it still pays to take a deep breath, slow down, and have a long, hard look around you.

Think about where you live and what you do. Remind yourself of the reasons you are where you are and the things that make it particularly special to you.

Now do me a favour and share what you're thinking. 

Tell me about the little treasures in your own particular locale that make you realise just how lucky you are.

It might be a location, a time of day, an event or maybe a scene out the kitchen window.

Tell me about that thing (or things) that make living where you are so special.

And share that local treasure below.

[For fun, next week we'll do the reverse and look at the not-so-good.]

Competition reminder: The picture above was taken with my new Cybershot camera and you still have until this Friday (29 June) to win your own new Cybershot camera which I'm giving away.

Make sure you go to the link here to enter and share your 'bad' photo with me by email or blog post (and don't forget to leave a comment to tell me where to find your entry). Can't wait to see your photos!

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Sunday, 17 June 2012

No More Bad Photos Competition: Paris, Je T'adore

It was our first weekend away together. Our first 'proper' date.

We were in Paris, the city of love, and we were totally smitten with each other. Taken from opposite sides of the planet, we had been drawn together like moths to the light.

Said to be the most romantic city on earth, I wanted to charm the woman who would eventually be my wife.

I spent weeks planning the short break. Coordinating with work colleagues based in the French capital, developing our itinerary, and keeping the event a secret from my beloved. I remember being incredibly nervous. I also remember how excited I was. This was a golden chance to reveal the true depth of my feelings for her.

I had almost no money to my name. I was laden with student debt, saving every available penny for the future, and earning a basic wage in my first job. The weekend was an extravagance I couldn't really afford but I'd fallen head over heels in love and I wanted to show her how much she meant to me.

This photo of us on our weekend in Paris was taken 12 years ago this month.

Us in Paris - my 'bad' photo.  
With impressive buildings surrounding us and grand avenues stretching out in every direction, we posed for the camera in front of the grand Arc de Triomphe. It was a rushed shot, the traffic swallowing us up as a passer-by hurriedly took the photo.

The photo doesn't do justice to that moment in time. It fails to capture our feelings for each other in those early days of our relationship and it understates the beauty of Paris.

We had no decent camera of our own. The photo was taken with a cheap and cheerful disposable camera. The focus was poor. The camera had no zoom and we stand too small in the picture. It was a typically grey day in Paris and the colour and light of the photo is dim and washed-out.

Poor quality as it is, this photo signifies the beginning of our life together. Young and in love, we went on to live in three countries on three continents, own three houses, take care of two dogs, and recently announced the impending arrival of our first child. We married beside Sydney Harbour seven years after this photo was taken, having celebrated our engagement in New York with a diamond ring purchased in Ottawa.

For no good reason, we never returned to Paris.

We travelled far and wide over the years yet, of all these travels - adventurous, glamourous, out of the ordinary - Paris is the place we remember with the fondest of memories. And this badly-taken photograph is the one that puts the biggest smile upon our faces.

I wish I could go back to the city of light and lovers, to this point on the Champs Elysees. I wish I could stand there with my wife of five years - my partner and best friend for the past twelve - and with my soon-to-arrive first child.

I wish I could recapture that special moment we had and show you the family we will soon become. This time, I'll make sure we have a better camera and, this time, there will be three of us, not two.

My wife recently handed me a postcard bought in Paris on that memorable trip. It's a photograph revealing a young couple embracing in front of the monumental arch. The subjects are in sharp focus in the foreground, while the famous attraction in the background is deliberately blurred.

The postcard is adorable. The young lovers are the centre of our attention.

On our weekend in Paris, the disposable camera had no special features to take such a shot. If I could recapture our photo, I'd want it taken with an optical zoom to focus in on us and an intelligent auto function to shoot us with a soft background as they did with Amour De Paris. I'd have that defining moment in our relationship recaptured on the Champs Elysees and I'd have it done in the spirit of this beautiful postcard we later found.

I'd show you the essence of this city of love, the most romantic of places. And I'd show you how, twelve years on, my wife and I are as in love now as we were then on that grey day in June in our favourite city on earth.

Paris, j t'adore.

Now it's your turn.

The reader competition

I'm running a reader competition here on In Search of a Life Less Ordinary related to Sony Australia's own No More Bad Photos and they've kindly provided the prize.

So here's what you have to do to enter this reader promotion here on ISOALLO:
  1. Pick one bad photo from your travel experiences or expat adventures ('bad' in terms of poorly taken, over-exposed, or simply very dated).
  2. Share that bad photo and explain why you wish you could recapture that moment again (you don't need to talk technical about camera specifics, but I had to for my post above).
  3. If you have a blog, you'll need to write a post on that bad photo and link back to here. If you don't have a blog, you can email me your entry with the attached 'bad' photo to here
  4. Then leave a comment below to tell me you've entered and direct me either to your blog post's URL or to my email inbox so that my wife and I can judge it on its creativity, stand-out writing, and all-round uniqueness.
  5. There's no word count limit but one paragraph probably won't cut it!

You have until the end of Friday, 29 June (your time) to enter and I'll announce the winner on Monday, 2 July on the ISOALLO Facebook page. To find out who the winner is, make sure you've liked the page here beforehand.

And the prize for the winning blog post or email entry is...

...a brand spanking new Sony Cyber-shot HX20 camera valued at $499.

The camera has 18.2 Mega Pixel, 20x Optical Zoom, Intelligent Sweep Panorama, GPS and High Definition Video. Also, the camera battery charges through your computer via the USB cable so there are no country compatibility issues. For more info on the Cyber-shot HX20 camera, head here.

No need to worry if you're entering the competition from outside Sydney or overseas as I'm happy to cover the cost of mailing it out to you in return for endless future blog support/love.

If you have any questions, ask away in the comment box below.

And the best of luck... because the competition has officially begun :)

Disclaimer: This blog post is my entry into Sony Australia's No More Bad Photos blogger competition. Sony also gave me a Cyber-shot HX20 to try out and it really is a fun camera to use.

Note: This competition has now closed - details of the winner can be found here

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Monday, 11 June 2012

Monetise Me

In Search of a Life Less Ordinary turned two in May.

Where did the time go? I still marvel at the fact I've been able to find material to sustain the site for 24 months but, thankfully, it keeps on coming... so where to next for ISOALLO?

As the blog has developed over time, one of the things I find myself wrestling with is the thorny issue of blog monetisation.

The number of enquiries from potential advertisers seems to grow month by month. It's all very flattering but dig a little deeper and the enquiries aren't always quite what they seem.

An email last week informed me that an entity on this PR agency's books was interested in blog advertising. They liked my writing and the site's overall content, and were interested in text link adverts. I gave them some prices and we agreed on a final figure, assuming the adverts were in line with the site's look and feel.

I asked to see some example adverts currently hosted on other websites and I was directed to a range of links advertising things such as blow-up dolls, sexy lingerie and, interestingly, sailor outfits. You'll be comforted to know that I jumped on the breaks and ended the conversation. But this experience and the rising number of enquiries begged the question:

With the appropriate checks and measures, is monetisation right for this blog or will it turn you, the reader, off?

Photo credit: Jason Mrachina (Flickr Creative Commons)

How much is too much?

I encourage advertising on the home page and have some steady clients who advertise by the quarter. It's a helpful way to bring in a little extra pocket money (because that's all it is, believe me) and hopefully brings some benefit to the advertiser themselves.

Banner or text link advertising is a fairly straight forward and easy arrangement to manage - as long as you vet the potential advertiser (see example above). It's also unobtrusive and doesn't usually interfere with the reader's experience on the site.

But what about the other advertising requests that have started to come through?

I've been asked if I'll accept posts written for me on behalf of advertisers, I've been encouraged to write my own content which will be sponsored by well-known organisations (written they way they want or to my own liking), and I've been approached about running competitions for a growing number of brands.

Some of these initiatives sound too good to be true (and, in most cases, are). Some have an unsettling odour about them (the ones that tick this box are immediately ignored). And others, well, you can't always know.

Whatever the approach, the most important thing to consider is that whatever I do doesn't impose on my audience and/or send them running for the hills.

Turning you on, not turning you off

Bringing in new sources of revenue to In Search of a Life Less Ordinary and other blogs like it is surely no bad thing. It delivers a useful source of income for those of us who spend hours plugging away at these things for the love of writing and blogging and community. It can also benefit the reader through the hosting of fun competitions and provision of inside access to certain relevant products.

But is it really worth it?

I'm terrified of sending loyal readers packing, fearful or trashing this blog's good name, and loathe to rubbish the user experience in any way.

For a dedicated blogger, this is the stuff of nightmares.

The creation of this blog was never about the money. It was about sharing a story with you, a journey from A to B. Bringing in a little extra cash or running several competitions of benefit to you (and to me) should only ever be a bonus, not a means to an end.

ISOALLO has a theme, a target audience, a loyal readership, and broad community. The thought of diluting the message, subtracting from my writing, and damaging this 'platform' is not a pleasant one.

My pledge to you

In considering the best way forward, this is what I truly believe.

You, the reader, are not an idiot and I should never treat you like one. Nothing I do on this blog should ever jeopardise our relationship and take advantage of your loyalty.

I'll stick to the story I originally set out to share and I'll only accept third parties on this site if they represent what I believe in and if they demonstrate my approach to this life. I'll never sell out to the highest bidder and not accept anything less than extraordinary. If I come across something and think "wow", then you'll be the first to hear of it in a manner that befits this blog and my style.

I'll try to make sure that any sponsored post is brilliant - I'll write it as best as I can. I'll only run the most fantastic of competitions and ensure that the prizes are, well, GREAT. I'll write all content myself, unless I spot an outstanding writer/blogger that this community needs to meet and hear about.

This is my pledge to you.

So, with this in mind, I need your valued opinion.

A well-known and trusted organisation has suggested I run a rather excellent competition. I'm game but are you?

What do you think? Shall we do this thing? 

Let me know in the comments below and I'll run the competition in the next week if the majority are in favour.

Also, as a reader, what do you generally think about blog monetisation? And bloggers, what have you experienced/decided to do about this thorny issue?

As always, do share your views below.

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Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Adventures in Writing and on Sandhills

While large numbers celebrated the Queen's Diamond Jubilee over the weekend, this citizen of the Commonwealth was locked in a small windowless room without food, water or alcohol, forced to write lengthy tomes as part of a 38-hour global writing initiative.

That's not entirely true.

I wasn't exactly locked away but I was voluntarily writing furiously and I did regularly need alcohol. Fortunately, I was also out exploring my environment which included fondling, sniffing and canoodling with several exotic fruits from the local greengrocer.

It was all thanks to Kristin Bair O' Keeffe's 38Write Writing Adventure Workshop Series for Place-Passionate Writers:
"Designed for all place-passionate, culturally curious writers, including expats and repats, globetrotters, armchair travelers, nomads, cultural spelunkers, deeply rooted souls, mapmakers and mapbreakers, wanderers and wayfarers, voyagers, and all writers interested in exploring and writing about their environs."
I'll admit that I've never taken a writing workshop of any sort before in my life. These things have always terrified me.

I imagine rooms full of writerly clever clogs, brains awash with ginormous vocabularies, perfectly capable of creating literary genius within the space of a few minutes and equally capable of destroying my meagre attempts at fiction with a stroke of their well-sharpened HB lead pencil or antique feather quill pen.

Thankfully, this workshop was none of the above.

For this international writing adventure, there were 13 writers in 7 countries (China, India, Australia, England, France, the United States and Belgium). With 38 hours to complete the 400-word assignments and send back the strongest piece of writing for feedback from our published author and seasoned writing teacher, this first workshop addressed 'description'.

In the comfort of my own home and neighbourhood, I went to a fresh food outlet to seek out a green custard apple, lounged around on the deck to study the routine of a pair of multi-coloured lorikeets, and flogged myself up and down one of the Northern Beaches' most prominent sand hills to have an adventure and write about whatever grabbed my attention.

Then, in Kristin's words:
"...polish this piece. Polish the heck out of it. Untangle your sentences. Play with word choice. Rearrange descriptions. Cut extraneous stuff. Hone it. Turn it on its head. Buff it with your sleeve. Try it in first person (“I”). Try it in third person (“he/she/they”). Try it in second person (“you”)."
And the end result...

Photo credit: Damozeljane (Flickr Creative Commons)

The Sand Hill

A wall of sand rises up in front of him.

To his right, the surf’s steady roar as it surges in from an angry Pacific Ocean. The tranquil inlet of Pittwater on his left.

He stands at the foot of a vast hill of sand the colour of ochre. He studies a man-made path in the sand that leads up the back of the towering monster before him. A stairway formed by footprints. Irregular, misshapen, though functional.

As he starts his ascent in the shadows that blanket the lower levels of this naturally formed behemoth, the cold sand sieves through toes that curl at its touch. Always struggling to gain purchase, soon panting heavily under the exertion and effort, the staircase of sand plays cruel games with him. He places a bare foot within a footprint, and the footprint collapses. It evaporates in front of his eyes as the sand cascades down the slope, catching in lazy drifts where the hill levels off.

The sand neither crunches nor clatters. It is voiceless. He hears only the throb of endless surf barreling in from the east, but it is a distant noise, as if smothered by the huge volume of sand around him. The air here is still and calm. The only noise is his laboured breathing.

He stops to inhale the heady, almost pungent, mix of seaweed and brine blowing in from the shore, but it is a taste of the ocean not the uneven terrain underfoot.

He breaks the crest of the mountainous sand hill and emerges into bright wintry sunlight. Here it is warmer and the heated surface bites at the soles of his feet. A gentle easterly wind feathers his face as imposing cliffs of sandstone in varying hues of gold and yellow block his path.

Looking back, the low-lying dunes at the base of the hill stretch out like a giant anaconda, weaving its way between ocean and bush, splitting the peninsula with its long golden tail. If the sand hill is the serpent’s head, then flowering shrubs gather in groups upon it, tiny white butterflies dancing over their tops.

When he turns, the sand sighs breathlessly as it gives way beneath his feet. He runs without fear down the hill, arms flailing recklessly, legs spinning wildly, laughing uncontrollably, the vista of a wide-open nothing where blue meets blue cast upon his face.

What do you think? Have you ever taken part in a writing workshop or maybe you fancy giving this one a go?

If you do want to join in, sign up and jump on board for the next 38Write Writing Workshop here - Sign Up. Would be great to see you there in a month's time.

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