Investigation: Finding my own voice

At 46 I still struggle to be me online.

I launched my very first blog in 2000 after discoveirng Grant Hutchinson‘s Splorp. It was the first time I had seen the word “blog,” let alone a chronological, vertical arrangement of posts on his life. I loved the idea and made one of my own via Adobe GoLive. Publishing via FTP was a huge pain the ass, but that’s beside the point.

I really liked what Grant was doing, so my first blog was very much like his. Time went by and I began to admire other bloggers like John, Shawn, Patrick, Dave and so on. I wanted to be like those guys so I started mimicking what they were doing (in my defense, a lot of us mimicked John). Then I started working for AOL where the bulk of my job was scaning RSS feeds, finding relavant stories, and essentially re-telling them at TUAW.

Today I’ll sit down and think, “OK, I’m going to write about something. Let’s see…” and then I browse the sites listed above, among others. “Let’s see what people are talking about.”

That’s crazy and tonight I stopped myself and examined “What’s happeing with me? What do I want to write about?” Turns out I didn’t know. So I opened Bear, and wrote the following questions and answers:

What happened today?

Work was a little crazy
I was late for the Scout meeting
Grace had her first day of high school
William cooked himself dinner
I updated Overwatch
I had two meetings at work; one with the CEO, the Clinical Director and the Associate Executive Director; and another meeting with the CEO and the drivers.
I had an evaluation with a potential new assistant for my building
I hoped that I get paid soon because I need some cash

What did I learn today?

I need to pay more attention to dates and times
Vulnerability is important
The only person I can be — online and off — is myself

What tools did I use today?

Bear
MS Outlook
Todoist
Keep

What did I work on today?

Unclutterer articles
Cultivating leads on Fiverr
Boy Scout calendar for the upcoming year
Spending time with Grace following her first day of high school
Laundry
An outline

What’s worth posting/sharing today?

This process is.

And that’s how I got here. My online voice is an ongoing investigation, and this is the first report. See you again soon.

One tip per day in March

I love writing how-to’s. It’s something I’m good at. Of course, I can always get better. That means it’s time for a challenge.

I’m committed to writing one useful, helpful tip per day in March, 2013. The topics will vary, from Mac OS to iPhone to whatever else I can think of. What will remain constant is that every tip will be easy to implement and useful. At the end of this month, you’ll have a nice collection of 31 great tech tips. It all starts tomorrow.

I am not a journalist

The Loop has pointed out an interesting legal case that’s currently taking place in New Jersey, involving the definitions of “blogger” and “journalist.”

“A New Jersey Superior Court judge recently ordered a blogger to defend her status as a journalist and explain why the state’s shield law applies to her in order to avoid revealing the names of government officials she accused of wrongdoing.”

For me, the answer is simple. I have no training as a journalist. I did not graduate from journalism school. I do not have a degree in journalism, nor have I ever trained among journalists. Therefore, I am a blogger, not a journalist. Done.

Earning my PDPs

American teachers 1 are required to stay current with the latest educational trends, practices and theories. In fact, the state has formalized the process by requiring them to earn a certain number of Professional Development Points, or PDPs, per year. My wife is in the process of picking some up which made me think … why aren’t I?

Staying current, sharpening skills, pushing forward professionally … these are things all professionals should do. Unfortunately, most industries don’t have a formal system in place. It’s worse for independents like me; I can progress or stagnate with no one to answer to but myself. With that in mind, I’ve devised a system to identify professional areas of need and make sure they get fed.

I’m going with a college semester model. Right now I’m in my spring semester. What will I study? Well, that was determined by answering this questionnaire.

  1. What do you want to learn?
  2. What is the next step in your career?
  3. What concrete, observable actions can you take to take the next step?

The answer to number one was simple: I want to continue to write about Apple, Inc. The next step is twofold: To improve my current skills and to write for a wider audience. Step three gets to the meat of it.

I’m taking two “courses” per semester. Each course is worth 3 PDPs. The first course is “Writing for Independent Professionals.” The required texts are

The Little Red Writing Book by Brandon Royal
On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Royal is first. During Week 1 (January 21 – 27), the assignment is to read chapters 1-3 and complete all exercises. During week 2 (January 28 – February 3), the assignment is to read chapters 4-5 and complete all exercises. This continues for 10 weeks until I’ve completed the book and all exercises. At the end, I’ll demonstrate mastery of the course’s lessons in some way (haven’t figured that out yet).

On week 11, I start again with Zinsser. Once that’s over, I’ll again take another “final” followed by a 2-week break. Then my 2nd semester begins.

Future courses will stray from grammar, style, structure, etc. and focus on Apple, writing for the web, networking, etc. I’m looking forward to it and I’ll tell you how it goes. And now … time to hit the books!

  1. Other professions have something similar in place. For example, RNs must earn annual CEUs (Continuing Education Units).

How to create a blogger’s newsroom with IFTTT and WordPress

I’ve been searching for an easy way to move stories I want to blog about from my RSS reader to WordPress for a long time. Thanks to recent changes in IFTTT’s WordPress actions, I can now do exactly that with a single keystroke. I’m elated about this, as it’s going to save me a lot of time. If you write about news, re-blog or comment on interesting stories of the day, you’ll like this, too. Here’s how to create a blogger’s “newsroom” with IFTTT and WordPress.

The setup

Before you begin, you’ll need the following pre-requisites:

  1. A WordPress blog
  2. An IFTTT account
  3. Google Reader for RSS

That’s it. Note that you aren’t required to use Google Reader in a browser. In this tutorial, I’m using Reeder for Mac. All you need is an application capable of starring Google Reader items. Here’s how to set it up.

Continue reading →

As good a thing as you’re going to write

In episode 001 of CMD+SPACE, Merlin Mann talks about “Cranking,” a moving piece he wrote and published to 43 Folders. He refered to it as the best thing he’s written, and a sort of coda for the site.

It got me thinking about “We Ride The Polar Express and It Stinks,” a post I wrote for Parenting Magazine’s blog The Parenting Post several years ago. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written 1  and, not long after its publication, I resigned from my gig with Parenting. I guess you just know when you’ve done a thing as well as you’re ever going to do that thing.

Here’s We Ride The Polar Express and It Stinks, a true story.

—–

We all know the story of the Polar Express. A bunch of kids take a train to the North Pole, where they drink hot chocolate, receive a bell and have a wonderful time (I’m paraphrasing, of course). Several cities and towns in America that have trains lying around stage their own interpretation of the book each December. It’s an enjoyable, family-friendly event with hot-chocolate burns to the face, lots of waiting, skinned noses and chins, terrified children, snot, tears, more waiting and very unhappy adults. And it’s only $75! Hooray!

Let’s relive this precious memory that I will treasure in my heart forever.

The train station is about 20 to 25 minutes from our house, so we left early, mostly because we only have a general understanding of where it actually is. After a little driving around we found one of the designated parking lots. Of course, I had forgotten to stop at an ATM first  so a few tense moments passed until I found a bank. It was totally my fault, and sort of set the tone for the day.

Back at the lot, we parked the car and walked toward the waiting train. The conductor was running around looking like Sir Topem Hatt, and extravagantly dressed elves held ornate, color-coded scepters high in the air, designed to gather our attention and lead us to our respective train cars. We had “Blue Frosty,” so we followed the blue elf. It was all quite charming and the enormous train hissed and made all sorts of nostalgic noises.

Once inside, the spell was broken.

A member of the wait staff was carrying a very large tray of paper cups filled to the brim with steaming hot chocolate. He musn’t have been in the holiday mood: The things I heard him muttering under his breath in Spanish (I appreciate your attempt to disguise what you were saying, sir, but some of us can understand you) weren’t exactly “jolly.” We grabbed four hot chocolates from him, and my wife poured one into a sippy cup for William. It was burning hot, so we let it sit with the lid off to cool. (Remember that, it’ll be important later.)

The train started to roll, and oh, it was like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. We saw people’s backyards, abandoned cars, winterized fishing boats, stacks of lobster traps…real “Christmas in New England” kinds of things. About ten minutes into it, William, who is a year old and not keen on sitting still for more than 90 seconds at a time, began to cry and whine and squirm around. We gave him a bag of pretzels, and my wife tested the hot chocolate. It was just pleasantly warm, so she put the lid on and offered it to him. He stuck it in his mouth and must have been surprised or something, because he immediately pulled back from the tilted cup, which continued to pour warm hot chocolate all over his face and clothing. Now he’s screaming bloody murder and I’m REALLY in the holiday spirit.

This is when Grace announces that she doesn’t want her hot chocolate, presumably because she thinks it hurts children.

Finally, the announcement comes over the PA: “If you look to your right, boys and girls, you’ll see the North Pole!” All the adults immediately look at one another and ask, “Which way is right on a train?” which sparks an intense discussion about the relative position of the engine and the conductor. “No, it doesn’t work like a boat,” some say. “It depends on which way the conductor is facing,” others say. “But the conductor can MOVE,” the answer comes back. “Well, not when he’s actually driving the train,” one adult offers. “Actually,” says another, “you don’t technically DRIVE a train…”

I want to shout, “Hello! Christmas Magic here! Childhood memories under construction! There are 4- and 5-year-olds on the cusp of disbelief sitting right next to you! How about preserving some of the adorable innocence? My daughter is about to burst because she actually believes that a 25-minute train ride through Sandwich, Massachusetts, ends at the North Pole! Who cares which way is right?!? Just look out the window and say, ‘Oh, look, honey! The North Pole!'”

We exit the train and it’s very cute. The station is decorated nicely, and teenagers are running around dressed as elves, looking busy. Inside, an older woman, dressed as Mrs. Claus, is knitting in a rocking chair next to a wood-burning stove as you’d expect of Mrs. Claus. Grace refuses to approach her. She refuses to approach Rudolph. Ditto the elves and other “helpers.” There’s a cute tree set up with a train at its base, which William promptly de-rails. One elf is taking the names of passing children to check if they’re on the Nice List. Grace, of course, blows him off when he asks her for her name. My wife tells him what it is, and he announces to his workers that Grace is on the Nice List and that they should begin preparing presents for her immediately, which they do. It’s very cute.

Grace glares at him as if he kicked her dog.

At this point we were waiting (and waiting and waiting) in the long Santa line. William was screaming and writhing around and I knew that the entire thing would culminate in my children’s refusal to acknowledge Santa. I was right.

On the way back to the train, William took a wicked digger and landed square oh his face, cutting his nose, lip and chin. Now he’s screaming and bloody. It was at that very moment that I decided to open my mouth and say something so intelligent, so sensitive, so insightful that it would be remembered in family lore forever.

“It was a mistake to bring William,” I said.

My wife, who is a good person and who doesn’t have a vindictive bone in her body, shot me a look that said, “One more word and I will throw you underneath this train.”

We had a quiet train ride back to Massachusetts (until William fell off of his chair and started screaming again), and a quiet car ride back home. That’s why I love the holidays: It’s a time for families to come together, set their expectations unrealistically high, and fantasize about a holiday experience that is perfectly wonderful — as snowy and sparkly as Rockefeller Center on Christmas Eve, and as heartwarming and uplifting as the final musical number in the Albert Finney version of A Christmas Carol. Then, you forget to go to the ATM, and you pour hot chocolate on your child, and someone swears at you in Spanish, and you realize that your life is not a scene from Currier and Ives, but a portrait of four people doing the best they can. All you can do, really, is hold on to each other, lean in close, look past the lobster traps, abandoned cars and trashy backyards and whisper, “Look, honey. The North Pole.”

  1. “Best” is the wrong word. I should say “favorite,” as I don’t believe anything I’ve written is really good.