On Lacking Focus

blogging and focus

Sometimes I worry that my blog lacks focus. I think about fabulous bloggers that I know who write about one thing, more or less. Whether it’s food, photography, environmentalism, parenting, fitness, product reviews, politics, fashion or what-have-you, there are people who do a much better job than I do of sticking to a central theme or topic. I think it benefits them, as well. Their readers know what they’re coming for, and they know they’re going to find it.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about what my focus should be. I can’t come up with one. I have some loose themes that I often stick to, mostly because they reflect my personality and where I am in my life. Call it crunchy granola suburban mom in search of a greater sense of purpose and presence. That’s too broad to be a focus, however. On top of that, even that broad categorization is too confining, sometimes. My mind is a big place – vast, in fact. It only makes sense that my blog should reflect that.

Still, I wonder. I wonder if writing would be easier if my choice of topics were more confined. I wonder if I’d receive more accolades, or have more readers, if I wrote for a targeted audience and worked all my search engine optimization magic. I wonder if I’m being overly self-indulgent, by telling myself I simply cannot be confined. I wonder why I chafe so much at imposing more structure on my blog, when I’m such a fan of it in every other area of my life.

I think, perhaps, that last wondering provides the answer. My blog is like my safety valve. It’s one of the places that I don’t have to be ordered and focused. It’s a place where I’m allowed to ditch the structure, and nothing all that bad happens. My kids don’t suffer if my blog lacks structure. Dinner still gets made. My work still gets done. The dishes still get washed. Everyone still gets to school and back on time. I’m at a point in my life where I have a whole lot of responsibility. This blog is a space where I can just be me, not Mom or Employee or Environmentalist or Wife or Responsible Adult. Because the truth is, while I wear all those hats, they don’t always fit me.

Recently, I’ve made a decision. I am re-claiming this space, and owning my lack of focus. I’ve ditched my blogging schedule. I took down my “Advertise Here” buttons. I have eased up on my podcast, interviewing truly fabulous people when they cross my path, but not scrambling to find guests when they don’t. Most importantly of all, though, I’ve given myself permission to just let things happen, instead of making this one more space where I try to impose structure, whether it’s needed or not.

Maybe what I’m saying is that I am trying to accept myself as I am, by accepting my blog as it is. We may not always have focus, but we’re both still pretty good. In any case, the only opinion that truly matters in the end for either one of us is my own.

Sometimes I worry that my blog lacks focus. More and more, though, I’m totally fine with that. More and more, I’m choosing to believe that small is beautiful, whether we’re talking about my blog or my life. More and more, I’m remembering that I’m living my life for me, and that comparing myself to other people is just not helpful at all. Those other bloggers are awesome in their way, and I’m awesome in mine. I don’t have to share their focus to be okay. I’m okay already, just as I am.

Reflections on Blogging Contests

olympic podium blogging contests win lose victory defeatIn my day job, I’m the Managing Editor of VancouverMom.ca. For the past month and a bit, I’ve been busy running the annual Top 30 Vancouver Mom Blogger search. First there were nominations, and then I had to narrow the list down to just 30 (Not. Easy.). Then I got in touch with all those fabulous ladies, and collected photos and profiles, which I compiled into articles. Finally, we’ve just finished two weeks of voting for the top winner overall. I’ve let the Top 30 know about the results, but everyone else will have to stop by the site tomorrow.

I was on this list myself, back in 2010. I did not win. At the time, I took it kind of personally. It happened that I was nominated for a bunch of these contests at around the same time, and didn’t win or place in any of them. I wondered why people didn’t like me. I worried about voting rules and wondered how some people got so many votes. Eventually, I became jaded and decided that I wouldn’t participate in so-called ‘popularity contests’.

I’ve been on the other side of a number of these contests, now. In my conversations with the people I’m honouring, I see some of the same feelings in them. They’re excited to be included. They’re frustrated when the rules don’t seem to work in their favour. They’re sad when the results don’t go their way – and they’re really thrilled when they do. And all of this just kind of makes me want to give these ladies a big hug.

Here’s the truth, in my experience: these contests typically go to the best networker. You’re not going to win by voting for yourself as many times as possible. You have to get other people to vote for you, and advocate for you. If you’re not comfortable promoting yourself in that way, that’s fine. Many of us aren’t. We don’t want to pester people. I sort of feel that way, myself. And now I know that’s why I’ve never won these contests. Knowing that, somehow, has allowed me to make my peace with it. It’s let me know that it’s not that my writing isn’t that good, or that people don’t like me. It’s just that I don’t like to talk about what I’m doing, or ask people to do things for me.

Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with calling on your network for support. There’s nothing wrong with telling your community that you’re in this contest and you’d love for them to vote for you. There’s nothing wrong with putting it out there, and seeing what comes back. In fact, it’s a great thing to be a good networker. If you enjoy it, so much the better.

In the end, the truth is that your worth as an individual, or as a blogger, does not depend on where you finish in an online contest. The value of your voice is not diminished if you finish dead last, or if fewer people read you. Winning is great, but it’s not a prerequisite to a life well-lived. Losing isn’t much fun, but it doesn’t mean that you failed. That’s what I want to tell all of the members of the latest Top 30 Vancouver Mom Blogger list who didn’t get a special email from me letting them know that they had won. They’re still awesome, just as they are. My wish is that they can own that awesomeness, win or lose.

Have you ever been in an online contest? Did you win or lose? What was it like for you? I’d love to hear your stories of victory and defeat.

Ditching the Schedule

blogging schedules

For a few years now, I’ve scheduled my blog posts to run every morning at 6:00am Pacific time, five or six days a week. Sometimes, I wrote several posts all at once. Sometimes I sat up late at night, trying desperately to finish something to run the next morning. But I did it, because I feel pretty strongly that in order to get better at writing, you have to write. The other reason I did it is because schedules work for me. I’m a planner by nature, and knowing what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it creates the sort of order that I enjoy. It’s freeing to me, in fact.

Recently, though, things have changed. For one thing, I’m writing a lot more for work. A lot more. I enjoy it very much, working as a writer and editor. However, it’s leaving me feeling a little bit lost when it’s time for me to sit in this chair and write for myself. Sometimes, to be honest, I’m all written out. On top of that, having the structure of a specific editorial schedule to adhere to in my working life has more than filled my need for structure. My planning cup runneth over, and at this point having yet another writing obligation to fulfill is just a little bit too much. And so, I’ve decided to ditch my blogging schedule here.

I will still write here, more days than not. I will still sit in this chair and think out my thoughts and write things simply because I want to write them. But I will do that on my own schedule, and in my own time. I guess you could say I’m giving myself the gift of freedom. The freedom to write, or the freedom to not write, as the muse dictates. Or as my energy level dictates.

At this point in my life, my biggest fantasy is to be able to tuck my kids into bed, then head downstairs to do whatever I want. This isn’t a reality for me, for a couple of reasons. The first is that my four-year-old Jacob is giving his father and me a workout every night as he gets out of bed for one more drink of water, one more hug, one more thing he has to tell us. I’m getting my daily exercise running up and down the stairs every evening, more times than I care to count. The second reason I can’t just do whatever I want when my kids are in bed is that I don’t have enough time during the day to finish all my work. But by streamlining things, maintaining focus, and making sure that I meet my basic needs so that I’m efficient, I do better.

My hope is that by easing up on the requirements I set myself, I can cultivate a greater sense of ease and spaciousness in my life. I can spend more time being present in the moment, rather than thinking about all the things I “have” to do. I can spend my evenings reading, or watching TV, or meditating, or taking a yoga class, instead of forcing myself to follow an arbitrary schedule. I have a long way to go, but it’s a goal, and it’s a big part of why I’m easing up on myself.

So, if you’ve noticed that my schedule has shifted, you’re right. It has. I’m not going anywhere – this space means to much to me to do that. But sometimes, I may be too busy living to sit in this chair and write. And you know what? That’s okay. In fact, maybe it’s even better than okay.

I’ll let you know how this new approach to blogging works out for me. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Do you set schedules for yourself, or do you find them constricting? And if you blog, when and how often do you write? Tell me!

My Two and a Half Minutes of Fame

makeup roomIf you’ve ever been contacted by a journalist, you know that they’re pretty much always on some sort of urgent deadline. They need to hear back from you, like, yesterday. If you don’t check your email every 15 minutes, it’s probably already too late. One of the results of this is that if you want to be part of their story, you often have very little notice to make it happen. It’s all something of a whirlwind experience, from the first email until the whole thing is over.

This rush-rush-rush effect is even stronger in radio and TV than in print, because while someone may be in a hurry to speak to you for a magazine article, the piece usually doesn’t come out for weeks or months after. In TV and radio, on the other hand, you may be called to appear in a couple of hours, hurry to make that happen, and then be on the air before you know what happened. I’ve experienced this a few times, mostly with radio shows, which I’ve been on a number of times. I’ve appeared in one local news story as well, and one documentary, but so far I hadn’t actually been on live television. At least, until last Wednesday, that is.

carol todd on the air on BC1Last Wednesday UNICEF released a report saying that Canada came in 17th out of 29 developed nations on measures of childhood well-being. We’re not exactly leading the pack. My boss at VancouverMom.ca got a call to be on a local news show talking about the challenges facing Canadian parents, but she was about to board a plane to Hawaii and so at around 2:00pm I was asked if I could be on the show at 7:00pm that evening. My husband was available to be with my kids, so I took the opportunity. I was excited for about 15 seconds. Then panic set in. The panic diminished slightly when I found out that someone would do my makeup, but I was still nervous.

The thing about being on the radio is that typically you call in to the show, so you’re sitting in your bedroom wearing sweats. Or pajamas. Or nothing at all. You can close the door and just pretend you’re having a conversation with a friend. And when a news crew comes to your home for a story, you have the home turf advantage as well. Plus, you know you’re going to be heavily edited, so if you totally lose your train of thought, they can cover for you. They don’t want 15 seconds of you saying, “Um, ah, um … I’m sorry, I can’t remember what I was saying, just give me a second,” on the air, either.

post-TV-appearance reliefWhen you show up at a TV studio, go sit in the makeup chair, and then take your place on a couch to the side of the set while someone counts down how many seconds until the host is on the air, it’s harder to block out the reality of what’s happening. When you’re ushered to your chair during the commercial break and someone clips a mic to your lapel, it’s even harder to block out the reality of what’s happening. And when you get your first question and lose your train of thought as you answer (yes, this happened to me), it’s pretty much panic-inducing.

Luckily, the segment was short, and my other answers were less blabbery. I didn’t swear, or fall down, or just stare blankly at the host. The producers seemed pleased, and even asked for my card in the event that they do any future stories on parenting-related topics. Plus – this is true – my husband actually works at that TV station in the graphics room, so I have something of an in as far as all that goes. I don’t think I embarrassed myself too much, and thankfully it was all over very quickly.

If you want to see exactly what I looked like on TV, you can see the clip for yourself here.

Have you ever been on live TV? What was it like?

Tea Stash Challenge: 2013 Showdown

Last week I issued my second tea stash challenge, asking you to show me your tea stash. Now, the day of reckoning has arrived, and the question of who has the most tea will be answered. If you are a compulsive tea collector as I am, or you just enjoy seeing how much tea a tea hoarder can hoard, you’ll want to follow along closely. And because I am a good sport, whether it measures up or not, I will display my own stash proudly.

So, how does me stash stack up? In 2011 I had 17 kinds of tea in my collection. In 2012 I had 19 different kinds of tea in my collection. As of today I have 30 different kinds of tea. Clearly, my hoarding has only increased in the past year. So have the number of teas other people are gifting me with.

I have 11 herbal teas:

tea stash showdown herbal teas

I have 10 black teas:

tea stash showdown black teas

I have four rooibos teas (the “Herbal Blend” in this photo contains rooibos, so I’m calling it a rooibos):

tea stash showdown rooibos

And I have five “other” – two green, one oolong, one yerba mate and one blend of black, green and mate:

tea stash showdown other teas

That’s a lot of tea. Even I have to admit it. It’s even more when you consider that I am not a hard-core tea drinker. This is why I end up with so many boxes, tins and bags in my cupboard, and it presents something of a conundrum. Last year I worked my way through some of my stash by making iced tea. I think I should try that again. Maybe I should also send herbal tea to school in my kids’ thermoses. That was one of the best parts of my own hippie childhood.

Show me Your Tea Stash at Strocel.comNow I’ve shown you mine, which means it’s time for you to show me yours. What does your stash look like? How many different kinds of tea do you have? I want to know!

If you’ve written a post, please include it in my link-up. Everyone who adds their post before 9:00pm Pacific time on Thursday, February 28, 2013 will be entered into a draw. You don’t have to be a tea hoarder, or have 30 kinds of tea in your cupboard, to join in on the fun. I’ll buy the winner some tea, on me. As I mentioned in my post last week, I’m not being sponsored in any way, I just want to share the tea love. I hope you’ll play along and share the love, too.

Now, what are you waiting for? Show me your (tea) stash!

Tea Stash Challenge, Round Two

My name is Amber, and I am a tea hoarder collector. When I ask guests what kind of tea they would like, and then pull out my tea drawer, the most common reaction is an audible gasp. It seems that most people don’t have dozens of teas to choose from. Most people buy two or maybe three different types of tea, and then finish them before buying more. I am not most people. If you are not most people, either, or if you just enjoy seeing what happens when a tea collection gets seriously out of hand, this is the post for you.

A little over a year ago I decided to gather my tribe and issue a challenge to discover who has the biggest tea stash. Fourteen brave souls played along. The overall biggest stash went to my friend Janet, who had 60 different kinds of tea. My friend Brandee came in second with 45. Clearly, I had found my tribe. We are the people who can’t walk past a tea shop without stopping in and buying one (or five) new blends to try.

I have not spent the past year depleting my tea stash. In fact, to my husband’s great chagrin, it has grown even larger. It’s not all my fault, though. You see, once people discover that you collect tea, they start giving you more. Arguably, more tea is the last thing in the world that I need, but truthfully I love to receive it as a gift. As a result, my current collection is bursting at the seams. I still have fewer teas than Janet and Brandee … but not by much. When I opened my tea cupboard recently, it occurred to me that the time is ripe to issue a challenge once again. And so, I am inviting you to show me your tea stash!

show me your tea stash challenge 2013
A snapshot of my current stash

Show me Your Stash!

Take some time this week to write a blog post about your tea stash, and then come back here on Monday, February 25, 2013. I’ll be sharing the nitty-gritty details of my own stash, and confirming exactly how many boxes, bags and tins I have. I’ll also include a link-up. Let’s see who takes home the compulsive tea collector crown – or who has the utmost restraint in the tea aisle. To sweeten the pot, I’ll be drawing one name from the folks who play along and sending the lucky person some tea from my favourite local tea shop, on me. I’m not being sponsored and I’m not acting on behalf of big tea. I just want to share the love.

I’ve created a button, which you can use in your post:

Show me Your Tea Stash Strocel.com

Now, what are you waiting for? Show me your (tea) stash!

Blogging: A Love Story

I never meant to be a blogger. I kind of fell into it, accidentally.

It all started in 2003. At the time, Geocities was all the rage, and many people were creating their own webpages. When I discovered that I had access to a free webpage through my internet service provider, I decided to get on board. Unbelievably, that web page still exists. (If you choose to click that link, please do keep in mind that I created it 10 years ago.)

At the time, I didn’t know the word blog. I was relatively newly-married, and working full-time as an engineer. I hadn’t written anything in ages. And yet, I fell into updating the minutia of my life in my life in the news section fairly quickly. When we decided to buy a house, I suddenly had more to talk about, and more to share with my friends and family. My husband Jon suggested that we could graduate from the free site to our own webpage, and I was on board. It would be like Geocities, only better.

blogging valentine's day social media

When Jon set up a blog, I was irritated. As I said, I didn’t know what a blog was. I didn’t feel that anyone else did, either. I made him put up a splash page, which linked to separate “weblogs” for each of us, as well as our photo album, videos and so on. And yet, in spite of myself, I fell into updating my blog regularly. I wasn’t good at it, and you probably had to know me personally in order to understand what I was talking about, but I did it. I blogged, once a week or so, sometimes more and sometimes less.

Things really changed for me as a blogger when my son was born. I decided that blogging would be my maternity leave project, and I got more serious about it. If you look through my archives, you can see the shift that occurred in late 2008. At the same time I joined Facebook, and later Twitter, which also shifted my perspective when it came to connecting with people online. I began to understand the power of the internet. I also began to understand what my inner writer knew all along – I have to write. Even if it’s badly-laid-out, three-sentence missives on an ancient webpage, once you give me the space I will fill it.

blogging social media valentine's day

And now, today is Valentine’s Day, 10 years after I started that terrible free webpage. In retrospect, I can see how that haphazard decision shaped my life, and set me on a course I couldn’t have anticipated. Through blogging, reading and connecting online I have once again reclaimed my identity as a writer. I have become a dreamer, and taken real steps towards creating a more meaningful and intentional life. I have met amazing people, been entrusted with inspiring stories, and danced my heart out. It isn’t extremely rewarding from a monetary standpoint, but I love it more than I can say.

I’m not a big fan of the romantic obligations that come with Valentine’s Day. However, I do see value in setting aside a day to let the people in our lives know how much we appreciate them. And so, today, I’m thanking you. If you’re reading this, then you’re making yourself a part of my community. That means so much to me. After all, I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. If I’m yours, in some small way, that’s the most rewarding part of blogging I know. It’s so much more powerful than I could have anticipated, when I tapped out my first entries 10 years ago. Sometimes, life has a way of making the unexpected adventure the best one of all.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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