Story Start—’Tired Old Man’

He walks alone through a small town on a bitter cold night in January. He marches slowly down the sidewalk, dragging one leg, pulling a luggage cart full of objects that look just as worn out and ready to die as he does.

He wears a dingy wool cap over oily, lifeless, dirty blond and grey specked hair. Strands of his beard stick out sideways, seemingly unaffected by gravity. He wears the standard uniform of the street native. Overcoat. Ripped pants, couple sizes too big. Fingerless gloves, used to be one color, now several. Tired old work boots.

Back when he was a young man, in the time when Jesus walked the earth, he used to enjoy the company of people. He’d sit for hours and talk story, laughing so loud people a quarter mile away would ask him the next day what was so funny.

Those days are long gone. After two thousand plus years life has lost a little of its succor, its zest, its willingness for him to be part of it. Which is why he has to find the boy, his final payment for freedom from this earthly cage, one last job before he can finally feel the welcome embrace of death’s warm hands.

Alright, your turn! Who is this guy? Where’s he at? What’s his mission? Who’s the boy (or girl, or dog, or whatever)? I’ve got my theories, but I’d love to hear yours.

Story Start—’Tired Old Man’

6 Essential Lifestyle Tips From A Freelance Digital Creative Stay-At-Home Dad

The only thing in America worse than being gay is being a stay-at-home dad.
Now, I know I will get some arguments on that point, but the gays have no idea what it’s like to have people judge you because they think you aren’t fulfilling your gender role the way God intended.

No idea.

I have been a stay-at-home dad for over a year now. It wasn’t something I ever wanted to do or ever saw myself doing, and I was resistant until the bitter end. But it made sense. My wife loves her job and the company she works for. She makes better money than I’ve ever made, and my ‘career’ has comprised of a long string of low-wage, dead-end, service industry jobs, most of which I enjoyed, some of which I tolerated, none of which I was passionate about.

A few years ago, before the whole stay-at-home dad thing, I started doing freelance graphic design and simple website setup, mostly for local small businesses. I still remember the thrill of being handed my first check for a job. A hundred dollars. It was for setting up a website on Tumblr for a cafe I used to deliver bagels to. It was also the first time I ever made money working for myself. Ah, I thought, I have opened the floodgates on this whole freelance money making machine.

In the year since I’ve gone SAHD, I have also been a part-time graphic designer and creative sidekick, part-time creator of a web magazine, and recently, part-time aspiring novelist. Despite trying to do so much, somehow I still manage to waste hour upon irretrievable hour of precious workable time.

One of the curses of the digital age, as we all know, is the ease with which we can waste whole days in this internet machine. After five minutes of Facebooking, my son starts crying and I think, why is he crying? I just put him down for his nap. But I keep forgetting, or choosing not to remember, how this internet machine warps time and really an hour and a half just passed in those five Facebook minutes.

The point of all this seemingly pointless drivel is that I’ve learned a few things. Specifically, I have learned as many as six things. Six things about how to, a.) be more productive, healthy, and happy when you’re working from home, and, b.) make the most of stay sane while being a stay-at-home dad.

Write down 3 things each night

This is the first essential practice in being more productive. I think Tim Ferriss and Leo Babauta both recommend this. If you don’t know who they are, then you’ve no manner of experience with this internet machine at all. If you click enough links, you will eventually get to the blogs of both Tim and Leo, because their blogs exist at the absolute center of the internet, a fact that has been proven many times, and needs not be proven again here.

At the end of each day, whether it’s the end of your work day or before you go to bed, write down the 3 most important things you want to get done the next day. The 3 things, besides keeping your kid(s) alive, that will most further you on your path to imminent legendariness.

It helps if you use Post-it notes because you won’t have room to write down very much. If you write down more than 3 things you’ll only frustrate yourself when you don’t get them all done, unless they are very small things, like ‘pee standing up today’ (unless you are a woman, in which case pee standing up should count as at least one of your main to-dos).

Keep a separate to-do list with everything on it. If you think of other things you need to get done, write them down on your master list, not on your 3-things list.

The benefit of this is, when you get started in the morning, or whenever it is you are able to get started, you won’t waste any time or mental energy thinking about what you need to do for the day. It’s already there, waiting for you. It’s amazing how much better this makes your life. It is the main reason to which I attribute my wealth, fame, and many accomplishments.

Take 2 walks each day

Your brain needs breaks and your body needs exercise. Going for a walk outside is one of the best ways I’ve found to build a little of both into your day, and get that much needed Fresh Air everyone is always going on about.

I don’t know about other kids, but mine loves being outside. There have been times where taking him outside was the only thing that calmed him down. Even now, if he’s fussy, I can usually strap him in the stroller and get him out the door, and he settles right down, just taking in all the Fresh Air and Natural Beauty of our suburban town.

Troy The Mystical Mormon says you can tell the babies who are outside a lot and the ones who aren’t. He says the outside ones are more aware and alert. So if you want your kid to be as nice and well-behaved as a Mormon child, take him or her outside a lot.

There are times when it’s just too hot, cold, or rainy outside to go for a walk, which I refer to as the McDonald’s Frappe At The Mall days. This past summer, when it was too hot inside or outside, I would take the boy on Mc.F.A.T. Mall days all the time, so we’d have somewhere to walk and not get heat stroke. (If you are a compulsive shopper, I do not recommend this tactic.)

That would never work now, because he doesn’t really sleep anywhere but his Pack ‘N Play in the closet, so I will probably see how long it takes him to drink a large Frappe by himself, then buy him four or five to keep him busy while I try to get some work done.

Use a timer

This is a lesson I’ve been trying to put into practice recently, but have had a hard time remembering to do. For example, right now I am writing this without a timer running.

I can’t remember where I first learned about it, but this is called the Pomodoro Technique. I’m sure there’s more to it than this—I haven’t read the book so I don’t know—but basically you set a timer for 25 minutes, do as much work as you can on whatever one thing you want to focus on, then take a 5 or 10 minute break, then start again.

I’ve been playing a little loose with those rules and doing 30 minutes of work followed by sometimes a 5 minute break to go pee standing up, and other times a 20 or 30 minute break to stare at clouds, but the principle still works. You’re forced to take a break, evaluate your progress, and come back to your work with a slightly fresher focus.

Nancy The Starbucks Manager (who does not know about my secret McDonald’s frappe addiction) says she does this when she’s trying to clean around the house to help her focus on getting one thing done at a time instead of getting lots of things partially done.

I use e.ggtimer.com, which is super simple and does the job just fine for free. Also, the same guys behind e.ggtimer have created a site called steep.it for timing your tea steeping, with a handy little chart listing quick links for different types of tea.

Go on adventures

This dovetails with the Take walks lesson above. If your life is all about work and productivity now, while you’re still a nobody, then chances are it will continue to be no matter how much stuff you accomplish, how much money you make, or how famous you become. My opinion is try to live the schedule you want now, no matter your current situation.

I’ve taken Asher to a lot of the national and state parks in our area. We’ve strollered most of the Battle Road Trail in Lincoln and Concord, where the very first battles of the American Revolution took place.

We have strollered along trails through marshes where people set up giant cameras and take pictures of birds and butterflies and various marshlife.

We’ve gone, along with Wendy, the wife and the mom of our little tricycle family, to Acadia National Park in Maine, where we stayed for three nights and drove and walked around and ate fantastic food and took lots of photos (but did not see a moose).

The hardest part of these adventures for me is that I have been cursed with a small bladder and always try to stay close to a public bathroom. I will admit to having urinated on a state park once or thrice, but that is just part of the adventure, and another reason why stay-at-home dads make more sense than stay-at-home moms.

Some of you probably have kids who have never slept in the car, or don’t live close to so many interesting public places, or don’t have an all-terrain stroller, but I believe if you are creative, and have enough desire, you can find a way to go on your own micro adventures. (Bonus tip: taking a small child to a bar does not count as an adventure.)

Plan ahead

As a freelance digital creative, planning ahead is muy difficult, at least for me. But hard as it is, I know that I do more of what I care about and less of what I don’t when I plan ahead, and it helps me focus on longer-term goals and projects.

A few different non-consecutive years now, I’ve done a year-end review, as inspired and advocated by Chris Guillebeau, which is actually more about planning the year ahead then it is about looking back on the year just past.

I have noticed a difference in the quality and significance of the things I get done in those years when I have planned ahead.

The main difficulty for me when I do plan ahead is, of course, sticking to the plan. And not that I think you have to stick to a plan—in fact, part of the fun of having a plan is deviating from it. But when you’re talking about chunks of time as big as years, it’s hard to stay focused in June on what you decided on doing in January.

I plan to have some kind of short list on the wall near my workspace to remind me what my main goals are for the year, to keep me pointed in the right direction. I get distracted so easily.

Oh look, all six seasons of Star Wars: The Clone Wars are on Netflix. Gotta go.

6 Essential Lifestyle Tips From A Freelance Digital Creative Stay-At-Home Dad

The Art of Disc Jockeying

A guest post on the 6 ways to create an unforgettable dance floor by Stacey K—a writer, blogger, traveler, hairstylist, and DJ based in Edmonton, Alberta.

I never — and I mean never — would have guessed that at some point in my life, I would make a living playing music. I kind of play clarinet, I can lead a rag-tag campfire singalong on guitar, and I can plunk out a few chords on the keyboard.

That’s it.

But two years ago I was desperate for work, and, in a sea of job postings, one seemed to jump off the screen: ‘Wanted: Part-time DJ’s for Busy DJ Company.’

When I started out, I knew nothing about sound equipment, had never tried to mix one track into another, and I certainly had no intention of building a reputation as a DJ. I was surprised to learn that creating a killer dance floor has a lot less to do with technical skills than I had originally thought, and a lot more to do with connecting with people.

Want to know how to become a DJ?

Firstly, I’d recommend reading this interview with dj questlove, founding member of The Roots, as it holds some of the most influential advice on DJing that I have ever read. Failing that, here are the five most important things I’ve learned while falling in love with my job.

Use emotional connection and familiarity to get people dancing

Generally, people don’t dance to songs they don’t know. Occasionally, if you’ve already won them over, you can sneak in some unfamiliar stuff towards the end of your show, but by and large, familiarity is the key to engaging a crowd.

No, I don’t want to play the chicken dance.

Ever.

But the truth is, for some people, old ‘cliche’ songs are part of the fabric of their memory, and a night isn’t complete until they’ve made little chicken-mouth hand motions beside their Auntie Kathy on the dance floor.

That said, the best kind of familiarity to play on is the nostalgia of when people first started listening to music – what was popular when your crowd was 16-25? I love playing for a crowd that is mostly my age, because I know exactly what late-nineties pop music is going to play on those nostalgia cords.

There’s a certain age of women who run to the dance floor when ABBA comes on, and a certain age of men that will almost always get out of their seats for the Rolling Stones. Use that to your advantage.

It’s not about you

It may seem counter-intuitive to building your reputation as a DJ, or your personal ‘brand’, if you will, but your performance is not about you. It is about your crowd.

You may cringe when you drop it, but if a song you hate elicits a cheer from the dance floor, guess what? It’s making you appear to be The Best DJ Ever in their eyes.

If you want your crowd to remember you after they leave the dance floor, you’re going to have to check your ego at the door, and play whatever it takes to keep the dance floor moving.

Pay attention

A good DJ is always listening and always watching.

Dinner music is a crucial time to collect information on your crowd that you can use to build your dance floor later. I am always watching the room, looking for what gets heads bobbing. Sometimes a song comes on during cocktails, and you see a person’s head go back and a smile come across their face as they say, ‘Oh! Great song!’ Pay attention to those moments, and make note of the reaction certain songs get from the crowd.

Sometimes people will surprise you. For example, one time a mother of the groom, easily in her sixties, insisted that I play only Macklemore as the night carried on – but often clues gathered from ages and cultures are a good hint.

Tailor your set list to your crowd

NEVER use pre-made playlists – not even for dinner or cocktail hour. It’s stagnant, cliché, and boring.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I have had guests come up to me to tell me that their expectations for me as a wedding DJ were very low – and do you know where that comes from? The fact that every wedding they’ve been to in the past decade has had the same music, played with the same games, spliced with the same old slow songs, preceded by the same dinner music.

I love the classics just as much as anyone else, but people are sick and tired of hearing the same old music.

Continually expand your music knowledge

I am always, always listening for inspiration.

If I’m watching a movie, and I hear something new I think will work well during an event, I write down some lyrics and find it later. Some people use Shazam, which is good too. I never have. I think I like the thrill of the chase, trying to track down that mysterious new melody.

Sometimes I hear an old song, that I forgot even existed, and I think, yes! This will be perfect for that wedding I’ve got coming up – the one that wanted lots of jazz.

I don’t listen to the radio much, but I try to make a point to when I am about to DJ for a young crowd. A few hours of listening to a Top 40 station, and you’ll definitely know what the current number one songs are.

Lastly, if there is one thing you take away, let it be this:

Connect with your audience on a personal level

This isn’t just crucial when it comes to music selection, it is also what will win your clients over. If people trust you and like you and feel that you are there to serve them, it’s rare that they will give poor feedback, even if your dance floor falls flat.

When it comes to gear and technology, fake it until you make it. Learn as you go. A basic understanding of gear will go a long way, but truly, every venue is different, and it will take a while before you are prepared to walk into a situation/venue and anticipate potential challenges, and that is only learned through trial and error.

No one wants to make an error when all eyes are on them, but truly, people forget about these things if you connect with them on a personal level, or through playing music that tickles their nostalgia bone.

Here’s one parting gift: Sam Cooke. Go buy his Portrait of a Legend album. Every song on that album can be part of creating an epic dance floor. I’ll let you figure out how.

Cover photo by Adam Gaumont.

The Art of Disc Jockeying

More Than Words

A guest post on the 5 storytelling formats of digital journalism by Jericho Knopp—journalist, writer, cat-owner, and amateur musician.

I came to journalism school because I like to write. I’ve long considered myself a writer, so getting a degree where I could write for a living seemed like the perfect step. When I got here, however, I realized I was in for a bit of a rude awakening. Journalism is no longer just writing. It is writing, photography, videography, audio storytelling, and other kinds of multimedia all rolled into one. It’s not enough to be a great writer, you have to be good at everything. And so I worked and slaved and studied, and I finally learned to embrace this wacky, multimedia world. Here are some of the new storytelling formats being tested by multimedia journalists, with examples of some of my favourite stories.

Audio Slideshows

When I first started working with audio slideshows, we were given a 30 minute primer on what audio slideshows were supposed to look like, and how to avoid common mistakes.

Then, we were given our assignment. We were to create one, from scratch, in two weeks.

My partner and I had to learn how to use Audacity to edit our audio, get good soundbites, navigate the expanse of our DSLR, and use Soundslides, yet more software to put it all together. The result was an imperfect meshing together of photos and audio of an intriguing burlesque performer.

This audio slideshow from the BBC is a more professional example that blends the photos and audio together much more seamlessly.

Video Stories

We went through a very similar process with video stories. We had one month to create a four-minute documentary piece we could be proud of. We were put into groups of five and given instruction as we went along.

We stumbled through picking which equipment to use, learning how to use our video camera, shooting up-close interviews, and the countless other things that you need to do to shoot good video. When it came time to edit, we taught ourselves Final Cut Pro as we went along.

The learning curve was steep, but we also came out of the experience knowing a lot more than we did previously.

I am getting better with a video camera with every new subject I shoot, but this interactive video documentary about the Colorado River takes video to a new level.

Infographics

Infographics are becoming wildly popular in all forms of news. It doesn’t seem like I can go a minute of scrolling through my newsfeed without seeing one. Unfortunately, they are not something I currently know how to create.

I wish I could feel comfortable that Infographics are not a part of our curriculum, but I actually worry that not knowing how to create them will be a disadvantage for me as a journalist. Luckily, there are online services such as infogr.am and piktochart available to help me out, should I need it.

Check out this awesome flow-chart infographic from Goodreads that the Huffington Post used on Valentine’s Day.

Photo Essays

One of my professor’s favourite quotes is, “The best camera is the camera you have on you.”

With this in mind, I took my little point-and-shoot down to the beach a few months ago to complete an assignment. I had to tell a complete story about the beach within five to eight photos.

It was more difficult than it sounded.

I took some disjointed photos of different aspects of the beach, and called it “A Day at Kitsilano Beach”. Photography is an essential skill for all journalists, as we are called to not only write the story, but also to take photos and share them across social media.

We can also integrate the photos into our story in a way that truly enhances the meaning, like “Coffee in India” by the Seattle Times.

Interactive Stories

What do you get when you combine all of the above? Stories that are truly compelling, where the different elements all work together to tell a complete story. The video complements the text, which complements anything else that the story has to offer.

My partner and I tried to do something similar in our latest story. We took video interviews and paired them with text to tell a complete story about how an artist turned confessions into art pieces. We were able to take all the skills that we’d acquired and use them together.

The New York Times does a fantastic job of combining all of these elements in long-form interactive pieces such as Snow Fall.

Next Up?

I have no idea where the digital landscape will go, but innovation is occurring now faster than ever before. It’s a constant race to keep up, never mind beating everyone else to the front, and I am as excited as I am nervous. The more the technology grows, the more we can share with each other in new ways.

More Than Words

My Best Hours

An interview with Heather Ebert, a writer who dropped out of the corporate world and took the plunge into a freelance digital life.

Heather Ebert is a freelance copywriter and editor, an insightful blogger—mostly on the topics of creativity and writing, and the founder and editor of a non-profit called Redemption Stories. She’s also a very prolific tweeter. Heather is based in Nashville, and, as you’ll read, she’s planning to spend the spring in Paris. Here’s my recent (and long-overdue) interview with her (using my patented Lazy-Interviewer’s-Five-Question-Formula®).

Heather Ebert

When did you decide to make writing and editing your career?

The desire to live and work as a freelancer dates back to 2004, but I didn’t have the maturity or credentials to do it successfully at the time. Almost five years ago I joined a small tribe of women who encouraged each other toward creative awakening, and by spring of 2010 I was emboldened to plan big changes. I wanted autonomy over my best hours so that I could tend to an intensifying writing impulse.

The corporate job I had back then was so soul-crushing that I was finally willing to give up a healthy paycheck to be free. So, I juggled that full-time job, a live-in job, and freelance projects for nearly a year to get out of debt, and then I let go of the corporate position in April 2011. Not a day goes by that I’m not deeply grateful for the freedom I have to live and work the way I do now.

Why do you do what you do?

Honoring the writing impulse is faithfulness to my true self. What I’ve been doing these last three or four years is what I should have been doing all along. I spent most of my young adulthood reacting to circumstances rather than being proactive about what would be most fulfilling.

Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

That sense of desperation finally propelled me past the fear of financial insecurity that had stood in the way. I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t buy many clothes. I drive a beat-up old car. But I feel extremely wealthy because my time is my own.

How do you like to work—what’s an average workday look like for you?

As long as I don’t have anywhere to be, I like to ease into the day. I get up around 8 a.m. (maybe one day I’ll be more of an early bird). I show up to my desk with fresh coffee and first start with a devotional and Scripture reading. Then breakfast, after which I’ll work on either a personal essay or a freelance project, depending on deadlines.

A few times a week I practice yoga midday and then sit back down to work in the afternoon. If I’m having trouble concentrating I’ll work from a favorite coffeehouse. I try to stop by 7 p.m. for dinner and not do anything else work-related after that. An ideal day ends with a block of time to read before bed, a precious part of my routine.

I’m also trying to reestablish weekend boundaries because it’s easy to spread freelance tasks over six or seven days a week. But my mind needs time off, so I schedule personal tasks and leisure activities on Saturday and Sunday to balance out the weekly rhythm.

What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?

If what you want is to work independently, then I recommend doing whatever it takes to get out of debt and simplify your living expenses. Building up a business or freelance income can take several months or even years, depending on how many clients you’ve secured by the time you set out on your own.

Independent workers are the future of the American economy. By 2020, 40 percent of American workers will be freelancers, independent or temporary, according to a study by Intuit. So, dive in. Come join us.

If you want to be a writer, you don’t necessarily have to quit your day job. Countless writers, even many established novelists, write their blogs, books and essays during their off hours. I quit my day job, but now freelance writing is my “day job.” Personal writing projects are still something I pursue in addition to professional work.

Writing also takes courage. Even if you quit your job and you have all day long to craft and create, actually sitting down to write is a challenging habit to cultivate. There’s always something that feels more urgent than writing. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield calls this repellent force “Resistance.” I encounter it every time I decide to put to paper any swirling thoughts and ideas.

Writing is a bold practice, but a worthy one. Showing up consistently is the most important part of that practice.

Which project are you currently most excited about?

In my professional life, I’m working toward a gradual transition from general copywriting to editing and ghostwriting books of various lengths. My hope is to take on fewer, larger projects instead of juggling lots of smaller ones. Plus, I love the intellectual challenge that authorship poses.

In my personal life, I’m going to live in Paris for three months this spring. I visited Europe last summer, which included a week in the City of Light. The magic and beauty of the city rekindled my sense of wonder. I knew I had to return as soon as possible, so I came home last summer and started packing. All my belongings are in storage until I settle back in Nashville. My creative energy is never as refreshed and vibrant as it is when I travel.

You can learn more about Heather at her website, HeatherEbert.com.

Cover photo by Linh Nguyen.

My Best Hours