Category Archives: Life in New York City

Shut Up and Write meetups

Of all the exciting events in New York, the one I look forward to every week is the Shut Up and Write Meetup. Every Wednesday, at 7 PM, about 20 writers meet at a cafe near the Columbus Circle. Before the writing session begins, we introduce ourselves and the projects we are working on. Then we write for one hour. And after the hour is up, we hang out for a bit or head home.

We have a plethora of writing projects and genres in the group. We have a TV screenplay writer, historical fiction writer, a memoir writers, a sci-fi writer and so on. Each person comes in with their own project and spends the hour working on some aspect of the project. The skill-set of the writers varies as well. We have the dabblers, who want to write but not sure about the topic. We have people who are working on specific time-bound projects. And then we have writers who have dedicated years to their projects. I once met a writer who is working on her book for the past five years! I am in awe of her dedication to her writing project.

I find the meetup to be inspiring and relieving. The meetup helps me focus on free-writing instead of editing every sentence as I write. I observed that most writers in the group write in their notebooks instead of laptops. I tried it during one writing session and could see why that was an excellent strategy. I spend almost every waking moment in front of a screen: either my laptop or smartphone or Kindle. While writing on a laptop, I always have my internet browser open to research something or check social media. Writing in the notebook helps me disengage from technology and deep-dive into my thoughts. It also helps me play around with the writing project in a manner that a computer doesn’t allow for. And most importantly, it helps me indulge in the joy of writing as I used to as a child – just me and my notebook and my favorite pen, lost in my own little world.

Another wonderful benefit of attending the meetup every week is that it allows me to let myself off the hook for the rest of the week. Once I put in the hour on Wednesday, I can be at peace knowing I put in my writing time for the week. And I can get a surprising amount of writing done in one hour. I write about 7 to 8 pages per writing session, whereas I struggle to write even 3 to 4 pages on my own.

I highly recommend the Shut Up and Write meetups. Give them a try and let me know what you think!


Volunteering with New York Cares: Computer Education program

This is a follow-up to my previous post: Volunteering with New York Cares: The Orientation.

On Wednesday, June 7th, I volunteered for the Computer Education program for senior citizens in Upper West Side. It was the most productive activity I had participated in since moving to the city. Around 20 senior citizens and four (or five, I think) participated in the program. I had expected to help the participants with basic computer-related tasks, like creating an email account, browsing the web, and so on. After all, those were the kind of tasks I had helped with when I volunteered in India. Little did I know, the session was going to be an eye-opener and a crash course in usability and accessibility.

I was assigned to assist three senior citizens: A 70-year old lady, a Chinese gentleman, and an Indian gentleman. The lady had already created her own fitness video for senior citizens, created her own YouTube Channel, and was now looking to add more tags to the video to increase viewership. After I helped her add the tags, she wanted to know how to send the video link as a message to her followers on Facebook. She had already set up two Facebook pages and was actively managing them both. I was blown away at how enthusiastic she was about learning new technology and most importantly, using the technology to further her fitness and commercial goals.

The Chinese gentleman wanted to learn how to set up his Gmail account on his smartphone. He already had an account, but could not configure it on his phone. After he configured the account on his phone, he asked me to help him install a translation app on his phone so he could work on his English conversational skills.

The Indian gentleman was an amazing poet who was working on his own book of poems and wanted to learn how to use MS Word’s layout functionality to design his own book of poems.

As a technical communicator, I found the event to be a real-world lesson on usability, accessibility, and audience awareness:

  • Audience awareness: I had incorrectly assumed the technological literacy level of my audience. The participants were much more tech-savvy than I had imagined.
  • Usability: When the event started, the lady was trying to add tags to the video. She kept telling me she had done it previously, but could not do it this time, and that frustrated her. She showed me the left-hand menu bar and told me that’s where she had added the tags previously. I clicked on her video’s edit button and scrolled down to locate the tags window. I think YouTube changed their interface since the time she had last attempted to add tags. For me, a digital native, it was very intuitive to click around and look for stuff, but that did not occur to her. I found this to be a very important insight for UX designers: Changing UI interfaces frequently can cause problems for the digital non-natives. One solution I can think of is tiered-versions of the software. Companies can create a basic, tier-one version of the software with critical functionality and leave it untouched or update it less frequently. And a tier-two version of the same software can have all the bells and whistles and can be changed as frequently as desired.
  • Accessibility: The Chinese gentleman faced issues because the size of the keys on the keypad on hisĀ  smartphone was smaller than his fingers, so he kept hitting the wrong key. I helped him increase the key size, but again, that is because I knew the functionality existed. There is no point of providing accessibility options if people are not aware of it, let alone know how to use it. Making the accessibility functions more intuitive and educating users about the existence and usage of accessibility functions is important.

I wish I was still teaching at Missouri S&T (I miss it already), so I could share the experience with my students. I would sincerely encourage every technical communicator, UX designer, and developer to volunteer for the Computer Education program at least once.


Volunteering with New York Cares: The Orientation

Lately, I have been feeling really grateful for the wonderful life I am blessed with. I just completed my lifelong dream of earning a Masters degree and having my parents visit me in the United States for my graduation ceremony, thereby giving them a chance to travel abroad for the first time. The contentment and happiness I feel right now urges me to give back to the community and city that I love so much. With that intent, I registered for the non-profit organization, New York Cares, as a volunteer.

Before volunteering with the organization, you first have to attend a mandatory orientation session. I attended the orientation on the morning of Friday, June 02, at the New York Cares office on Wall Street (I think, not sure of all streets yet). The session was led by a New York Cares pro, a 77-year old energetic person who has been volunteering with the organization for over 20 years. The organization itself is 30 years old and still going strong. The session was well-attended with a room full of people from different age, ethnic, and professional groups. We were informed about the purpose of the organization, the types of volunteering opportunities, the expectations from volunteers, and the sign-up process. New York Cares provides volunteering opportunities across the board. You can volunteer for projects that work for children, immigrants, elderly, homeless, or even furry friends. The areas of operation include education, fulfilling immediate needs like food and clothing, and beautifying public spaces. I like that I can volunteer for different projects and figure out where my talents and skills can help the most.

My first impression of New York Cares was that it is very organized and professionally run. Just the fact that they conducted an orientation and hold their volunteers accountable for honoring their commitments is laudable. In my experience volunteering in India, most of the volunteers seemed to consider themselves to be better than the people they were serving and expected some form of social accolades for volunteering their time and efforts. That always bugged me. I consider volunteering as a form of service to our fellow beings (human or animal), and a way to share the abundance of time, energy, skill, and money that I am blessed with. I believe in dignity of the people we serve, and that’s precisely what I noticed at New York Cares. The organization seems to function with the ideology that we are just sharing the gifts we have with each other, and that we gain as much knowledge and experience from the volunteering activities as those we serve. They even call the people being served as “clients”, not “beneficiaries”, which I found to be very telling of their attitude towards those we serve.

Another factor that influenced my decision to volunteer with New York Cares is that it gives me the opportunity to directly interact with people whose lives I may touch. In case of organizations where I make monetary contributions, I am never fully aware of how my contributions affect others. But with New York Cares, I can spend one afternoon teaching a senior citizen how to use the Internet and open up a whole new world for them. Or I can assist an non-native English speaker get better at conversational English, and empower them to live their lives more comfortably in this city. These opportunities to see for myself how my contributions benefit others are reason enough to be excited about my first volunteering experience next week. Can’t wait to get started!