What’s It For?

To challenge our own thinking and the structures that make our society stand is to ask some hard questions.

For years, the work meeting has been under fire as the most inefficient use of time. As different startups and companies move toward challenging the reason for a meeting in the first place (get information to as many people as possible… something that can be done electronically), even deeper thinking must take place.

Must everyone know about it?
Does it affect everyone receiving the message?
Are the people you speaking to the ones who can do something about it?

All things to consider, but an even bigger picture must be considered.

As I continue on my digital declutter experiment for the month, it’s forced me to consider whether these technologies that are ubiquitous in our lives are really necessary. Each day, I miss them less – including those that are “necessary” for today.

My phone, for instance, is only a platform. Someone in my position doesn’t need the endless notifications of emails and app pings in order to respond immediately. If I were a critical decision maker where every second changes the fate of something much larger (e.g. a political leader on the cusp of war), those notifications could be necessary.

Merely being there and told it makes life easier (or run smoother) doesn’t exclude it from being challenged.

We must always ask the hard questions and be honest with the responses we receive.

The Book Whisperer Book Review

Author: Donalyn Miller
Book Link

If “Book Love” was enough to inspire a new pedagogy for my classroom, “The Book Whisperer” puts it over the edge into a solid commitment.

Miller is a grade six teacher who has taken the idea of getting students to read and accelerated it to its max. She espouses the idea that traditional methods of getting students to understand reading strategies (worksheets, notes and disambiguated examples) pale when putting books into students hands and getting them to read.

First, I am jealous of her classroom library.

As someone who purged most of his books over the past five years (close to two hundred)… mainly because they were nothing more than showpieces… and because they were burdensome to keep moving… I am kicking myself for not saving them for my classroom. I’ve been slowly building it over the course of this year, and noticing its huge success with my students, but hearing she has 2,000 titles? Well, now I’m envious.

If there’s one thing Miller does, is instill confidence into teachers to attempt a new approach that gets students falling in love with reading. Really, it’s a simple matter of learning to let go and getting ready to pick your battles with those who would fight against the status quo.

She provides ample examples to follow and you can feel her passion for reading bleed off the page. She is even as extreme as getting students to bring their books with them when they wait in line for getting their pictures taken. The fact she gets them on board with that level of commitment is impressive.

The sad part in reading near the end is hearing about her students who come back to her upset their reading expectations after her class. You begin to understand that a love of reading is possible, but we never give young people the opportunity to discover it in school.

It’s an inspiration for me to continue down the path in my own class. Even if my students leave never getting a chance to read for the pleasure of reading, at least they will have this year as a foundation… and I will work hard to make it so.

Life is a Game Until You Lose

I once had the attitude that life was nothing more than a game.

Every part of it could be gamified and the whole point was to get enough points before going onto the next level. This thinking was largely influenced by many years of my own video gaming addiction, even when I refused to see the connection.

The problem was there was no next level.

The people you dealt with on a daily basis were real people and the consequences of your actions were permanent. There is no do-over to start the level again until you get better results.

Yes, there is opportunity for forgiveness, starting anew and attempting to better yourself, but there is a price to pay for all of those. It took me many years to realize I had a huge bill to pay and little in my account to do so.

A game is also something you can stop playing. At any point, if the game stops being fun, you can take a break.

Life doesn’t allow you to stop playing.

When you stop having fun, it gets too tough, or if you lose, you have to keep going. There are no extra lives.

You can have fun and you can play (and playing is crucial to our health and the central theme of my Masters research), but making it a game will only break reality for yourself.

And when reality breaks, it’s tough work to pick up the pieces.

The Pulp Jungle Book Review

Author: Frank Gruber
Book Link

Reading this book is enough to make today’s writer feel lazy.

I first heard about it through an off mention in a Dean Wesley Smith post and decided it was worth the effort to procure. Reading through confirmed it was worth every penny to get it to my doorstep.

While it can be looked at as a history book of where writing was in the thirties, as it follows the lives of those who wrote for the pulp magazines (”pulp fiction”), it’s really a story about what writers were doing and sacrificing to earn a living.

Gruber does a lot of name dropping, which would be neat if you knew who any of these authors were, but the gems were in-between (and a few times on) the lines.

While today’s bite-sized social media laden messages about rejection and never giving up are meant to be an inspiration, it was an accepted part of the job for these writers. Gruber speaks about the numerous times he kept submitting to magazines without any avail (for years, in a few cases) and how this was the norm.

You submitted work and it was either accepted or rejected. You hoped for acceptance, but if you didn’t get it, you kept going. Even after establishing yourself, there was still a chance you would be rejected (as was the case with Gruber trying to break into Hollywood).

Then there were the stories of the work ethic of these writers, including one who, in the middle of a party, realized he needed to submit a 12,000 word short story for publication in the morning. He sat in the corner, typed non-stop for four hours, then came back to enjoy the festivities.

There is also an entire chapter between the meeting of Gruber and Max Brand (the pen name of one of America’s most prolific literary giants). Between the consistent output and constant drinking, it’s stunning to hear his commitment to the written word.

Gruber does provide direct advice to writers near the end. What’s telling is the advice he gives here (written in the 1960s), is identical to what every working writer suggests today:

Put your butt in the seat, write a lot, read a lot and put it out there.

I’m glad to have read through this one.

Waiting for the Muse

“Just wait until inspiration hits.”

Inspiration rarely, if ever, strikes someone out of the blue with no previous effort given. Inspiration comes to the person who is already hard at work.

The brain needs time to rest, and it’s in those moments, you will find inspiration. However, it is the result of work and focus coagulating together with the subconscious mind.

If I waited for the muse to strike before I wrote, there’d be no point in continuing with this site anymore. Nor would there be a point to finishing any works in progress or even starting a new one.

Waiting for the muse is a hopeless cause. It doesn’t visit the person who is idle, nor can it be forced out of its hiding place. It will choose its moments carefully.

The moment comes when the work happens and the ego gets out of the way. And the amusing part is that when it finally strikes, it encourages you to get back to work.

It comes when you rest, but only after you’ve been working.

Don’t expect it at any other time.

The End of Absence Book Review

Author: Michael Harris
Book Link

After reading Solitude, I decided to go back and read this earlier work from Harris. If I wasn’t a fan the first time around (which I am), this book sealed the deal.

Harris takes an exploration into the world we are moving towards, where a generation will have no idea what it’s like to be disconnected. There is still a gap where some of us will know life before and after the Internet, which is a huge issue I still wrestle with… especially as a teacher and seeing the ubiquity of technology in the classroom.

This book is for anyone looking for sympathy as they sit at a table with others and watch helplessly as they stayed glued to their phones. It’s also for those who get tired of taking second place to a conversation with a person because they keep turning their attention away from you. It’s for people who feel frustrated and helpless to do anything because they know it’s not going to change.

The biggest geek-out in the book was his meeting with Douglas Coupland, who still remains a favourite author of mine. To hear Coupland’s words about never wanting to go back, and I understand the reasoning, was a seal of the times we’ve entered.

While I work through my own digital sabbatical, albeit not quite as extreme as the one Harris took in this book (which I also felt dragged a bit), it’s created room for reflection in my own life with my relationship to technology. I’m just happy there’s someone else out there who is struggling with the same questions as myself.

Easier and Less Giving of Ourselves

We have undoubtedly made life easier for ourselves.

Thanks to our collective genius (and stupidity), we have developed technologies that have given us a lifestyle superior to monarchs less than two centuries ago. Even the poorest among us can eat food that is more becoming of aristocrats of the 1800s (not to take away from the injustice of their access to food in general).

I’m typing this post on a computer, which has the capacity to tell me when I’ve committed a spelling mistake, correct it and change the text as I see fit without hassle. I can post this from anywhere in the world provided I have access to the Internet.

Some of the posts on this site were written on my phone while I was on the go, which was unheard of twenty years ago.

Yet, with all of what we have to make life easier, the trade-off has been for us to give the minimum amount in order to make it work. The idea of making sacrifices has been relegated to the outliers as something ‘crazy’ only that person could pull off.

Instead of truly giving of ourselves, we are giving only a persona of who we imagine ourselves to be. Any more would require real work and a level of authenticity we’re not willing to face.

This trend can only reverse if we understand the technologies that make life easier should also make it easier to give more of ourselves.

Refugee Book Review

Author: Alan Gratz
Book Link

Out of all the potential words in the English language to describe this book, I’m going to have to settle on amazing… which is a shame, because it deserves something more grandeur.

Refugee follows three different storylines of refugee families: a Jewish one escaping Germany before the war, a Cuban family trying to make it to Florida in the early 90s and a Syrian family trying to make it to Germany in 2015.

The brilliance of this novel is how all three stories connect together in the end.

Gratz did the work to add as much truth as he could (real stories) into the fictional tales he’s written. Each story feels real and you can empathize with all the characters during their struggles.

It’s one of those books where you walk away with a newfound respect, and compassion, for the people who flee their countries in hope of a new life. It compels you to think differently and want to do something substantial.

Any book that can elicit that level of emotional response is a success indeed. Still… in my sleep deprived state… I can’t think of a better word than amazing.

A Digital Sabbatical

For the month of January, I’ve subscribed a digital sabbatical. The details were put together by Cal Newport, someone who I’m particularly fond of in his work on deep focus, but here’s the gist:

In my personal life, I am to remove all optional technologies for the month… then re-introduce them again in a purposeful way.

I took this assignment to its full extent, cutting out social media (not deleting accounts – just not logging in), Feedly, podcasts, video games, random web surfing, news sites (although a physical newspaper is fine), only checking my personal email a few times throughout the day and deleting any app on my phone that has a desktop or web browser equivalent.

I can still take calls and respond to text messages, as I’m not looking to cut myself off from the world.

After a week, even though I’ve always considered myself a focused person who can handle digital distraction, I’m blown away by the results.

Already, reading is much deeper (my brain isn’t always interrupting me to wonder what else is happening), writing is coming easier and the inclination to “just check” my phone has almost subsided.

I don’t anticipate any great revelation in the end, nor will it be a stepping point to completely cut out digital technologies. We are very much in a new world and removing myself from the stream would be akin to telling Gutenberg I don’t care much for his printing press.

This is a sabbatical to remind myself of technology’s purpose and how I can better use it for my own life.

There will still be daily posts, but I suspect there will also be great strides in other work as well. I’ll keep you posted.

Don’t Live for Your Obituary Book Review

Author: John Scalzi
Book Link

Reading John Scalzi is both a fun aberration from life and a thought-provoking pleasure wrapped in humour.

Don’t Live for Your Obituary is a collection of his posts about writing for the past ten years. As someone who hasn’t been reading his (20+ year!) blog consistently, I didn’t mind that he wanted to compile some posts together and sell it as a book.

It is refreshing to hear the voice of someone who has been in the writing field offering solid advice, rather than those who have seen success after a few years and claim their own guru status. It’s also enjoyable to read his potshots against elitism in writing while admitting his own shortcomings (and successes).

I often found myself captured by the arguments he was making and forget to highlight key passages that stuck out at me. Not that this should ever be an issue for a reader, mind you.

Could you imagine?

“Hey, Scalzi. Do you think you could ease up on your prose so it’s not so compelling? I need a break now and then. Thanks.”

Anyway, this book will appeal to anybody who wants the veil of writing lifted for them. For those who are starting, many of these chapters will be helpful in discerning the long road ahead.

And yes… and with great gratitude… Scalzi is one of the very few people who will admit luck has a huge part in success.

For those who have been in it for a while, it’s a refreshing and honest take on what another professional is doing.

Not every chapter will appeal to a reader and even I admit to skimming over a few of them. Perhaps at another point when I’m feeling particularly passionate about the subject will I return to pore over the fine details.

In any case, I look forward to his next ten years of writing.