Compass and Lamp

I started this blog in June, 2010, after a daylong blogging seminar hosted by the local branch of the California Writer’s Club. I was trying to write a fantasy novel, and popular wisdom at the time was that in this 21st century, aspiring writers needed to learn self promotion, which requires an online platform. I dutifully created Facebook and Twitter accounts, and TheFirstGates. Fortunately, blogging quickly took on a life of its own.

Almost from the start, I broke every rule the teacher of that blogging class presented, chief among them, the “one topic per blog” rule. He had eight blogs. The mere thought of that makes me tired! Though clearly an A-type, I am blessed with a strong laziness instinct, which often saves me from creating extra hassle for myself. A firm believer in Hillman’s model of the “polytheistic psyche,” I give most of the personalities time to roam around here. Continue reading

Ensuring Your Site is Mobile-Friendly

Useful information from wordpress.com on keeping your blog current with a Google search algorithm change.

The WordPress.com Blog

Today, Google released a change to its algorithm that gives higher search scores to sites it deems “mobile-friendly.” Curious WordPressers might be asking:

  1. How can I be sure my site is mobile-friendly?
  2. What can I do if my site is not mobile-friendly?

1. See if your site is mobile-friendly

Visit Google’s mobile-friendly test link and enter your site’s address (e.g., http://dailypost.wordpress.com or http://automattic.com). Google will then analyze your site and declare it mobile-friendly or not.

Did your site pass? YAY! Pass GO and collect $200 from the Community Chest.

2. What can I do if my site is not mobile-friendly?

If your site failed Google’s test, you might be using an older theme that’s not responsive. Responsive themes change their layout slightly when someone visits via tablet or mobile phone to ensure that important content like the site title, post titles, and post content can be read on smaller screens.

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Terminal Time

The phrase, “Terminal Time” has a dire sound, but as the photo below should make clear, this post is not about terminal illness. It’s about terminal, as in airports; not the end of life, but the end of patience.

Neon passageway, O'Hare Airport, 2013 by Nicola. CC By 2.0

Neon passageway, O’Hare Airport, 2013 by Nicola. CC By 2.0

The subject comes from the WordPress Daily Prompt for June 10, You’re at the airport, your flight is delayed for more than six hours, and none of your electronic devices are working. How do you pass the time?

Like millions of others, I’ve been there on several occasions. I think I was still in my teens the first time I got snowed in at O’Hare. Since Chicago’s airport has been the scene of my most dramatic delays, let’s imagine what we can do there to pass the time in an unwired kind of way.

1) Buy a paperback. This almost goes without saying, but since most airport bookstores don’t carry Moby Dick, here is a chance to indulge our guilty pleasures, whatever they may be. No one blames you for reading trash when you’re stuck at O’Hare.

2) Walk or ride the escalator through the neon passageways. If you’re with a companion, one of you can say, “Whoa, dude!” and the other can reply, “Psycedelic!”

3) Eat something. O’Hare has a huge variety, from cinnabuns, to Big Macs, to build-your-own-salads. Go to a bar if it suits you, but before you dip into the beer nuts, remember the opening scene of Contagion, with Gwenneth Paltrow doing just that.

4) Work a puzzle. Mary and I spent a happy hour doing that on the ground in Philadelphia last summer. She is crossword fan, with much experience and several dictionaries. I know lots of nerd expressions and assorted trivia, so we compliment each other.

5) People watch #1: Spot an interesting character and work out the plot of your next (or first) novel.

6) People watch #2: Figure which of your fellow travelers are aliens, as in Men In Black extra-terrestrials. Like the woman I saw with a dog in a pink tutu. This is true! She was talking to the dog, who looked absolutely miserable, while everyone tried to look away. I’m sure the dog came from a more intelligent planet than its owner.

7) Walk around. What a concept! You’ll feel better, and if you decide to be brisk, you can even get in some aerobics to work off those pizza slices.

8) Practice meditation. It’s a challenge to stay focused when you’re tired, annoyed and distracted, but that makes it interesting for brief periods of time.

9) Buy a notebook and write your next blog post longhand. Soon enough you’ll get your smartphone recharged.

10) If you’re gregarious, strike up a conversation. I’ve mentioned a few opening line suggestions like,  “Snow sucks, huh?”  Or, “Psychedelic!”  Or, “That poor dog. I hate tutus!”

You get the idea, and I’m sure you can add many more of your own. Maybe this post will help someone during the summer travel season. Now all I have to do is hope the lords of karma are kind, and I won’t have to eat my own cooking anytime soon!

I think, therefore

The Thinker, Rodin. Public Domain

The Thinker, Rodin. Public Domain

When I first started to write, in my teens and early 20’s, I was hugely influenced by an eclectic group of American writers that included vocal social critics from the earliest years of the 20th century. People like Theodore Dreiser, who wrote famously clunky prose, but whose An American Tragedy (1925) was a stinging indictment of greed in our culture. Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis depicted the soul-crushing conformity of a milieu we often imagine as small town innocence. But greater than any other influence was Henry Miller, who demonstrated the power of personal essays. His books, like The Air Conditioned Nightmare (1945) shaped my view of our dominant culture.

It was natural that this kind of critique, along with that of more recent writers and essayists like Michael Ventura, should influence  my blogging. But this spring something strange happened. At the start of Lent, though I do not celebrate the season in any formal way, I announced that I would “give up” negative posts for the duration. As expected, the experiment was more interesting than I expected.

"Rodin's thinker?" by Patricia van Casteren, 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Rodin’s thinker?” by Patricia van Casteren, 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve already blogged about some of my findings, especially the obvious ones, like the preponderance of bad news in all varieties of media. And I knew in advance there would be less to say if I excluded negative themes. What I didn’t expect was to find myself wondering whether it mattered – it’s virtuous to write about things like climate change and income inequality – isn’t it? A very interesting question since I don’t really believe many writers and artists change social ills directly. Maybe Charles Dickens did, or Jacob Riis, with his photos of child labor, but Dreiser didn’t eliminate greed and Miller didn’t break the ruts of conformity. Writers and artists sometimes change individual hearts and minds, but how does that work? That is not a rhetorical question, but something I often wonder about. How does it work?

Perhaps it was this kind of question that moved Phil Ochs, one of the best of the 60’s protests singers, to write, “You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty / Ah, but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.” Maybe it’s what led Henry Miller, in his last years, to write books like, My Bike and Other Friends, and to focus on his watercolors.

Henry Miller paintings

My biggest discovery, while turning away from negative stories during Lent, concerned inner dialog rather than outer events. I’ve attended to this in a focused way in the past at various times, but not for a while. Mindfulness practice appeared on the cover of Time, so it must be gaining fad status, but that does not diminish its worth. It’s an ancient contemplative discipline that involves simply watching the contents of consciousness. Not fixing, fighting, or merging with, but simply observing what flits through awareness (here’s a good introduction to the practice).

I don’t know about anyone else, but I often find a subtle but persistent stream of critical inner narrative on self, others, and events. The narratives tend grow in the darkness yet dissolve when observed, the way shadows disappear when you turn on the light in a room. Observation eventually leads one to suspect that thoughts have no more substance than shadows, and no more inherent reality, and yet they can have profound effects. I suspect we have all had interesting synchronicities, met things in the world corresponding to our inner states. And if one subscribes at all to notions of the effect of collective thoughts, an idea given names like, “tipping point” or “hundredth monkey,” then the contents of consciousness take on a meaning beyond their effect on oneself alone.

I follow the Dalai Lama on Facebook and often note that when he is asked about topical issues like climate change, he always gives a thoughtful answer, the tone of which is invariably, “I am hopeful.” If I learned anything with this Lenten experiment, it is how hard it can be to cultivate a hopeful attitude. I also cannot imagine anything more important. Can there be a more important seed to plant than this one – “I am hopeful?”

A spring break medley

medley (med-lē) n., 1 a mixture of things not usually placed together; heterogeneous collection; hodgepodge.

A quiet week, with many ideas wandering through my mind without quite attaining blog post velocity. Sitting here, with a cup of coffee and the windows open to a fine spring morning, I decided to scoop up some of these notions, not necessarily in order of importance, and present them to you as a medley, or hodgepodge as the case may be.

On Mickey Rooney: I wish I had known that last Sunday, all day, Turner Classic Movies was  hosting a day of Mickey Rooney movies. I tuned in late, but did get to see Boy’s Town (1938) and The Human Comedy (1943), both notable for their idealistic and almost too sentimental presentation of American life. Boys Town tells the story of Father Edward Flanagan (Spencer Tracy), who founded a home for abused and delinquent boys in Nebraska. Rooney plays Henry Hull, the tough kid who tests Flanagan’s belief that there is “no such thing as a bad boy.”

Tracy and Rooney in "Boys Town," 1938

Tracy and Rooney in “Boys Town,” 1938

In addition to the real life humanity of Flanagan, whose Boys Town still exists in the Midwest, the film reflects 1930s progressive ideals, as well as an older, deeper, American romanticism, the belief that by nature, we are noble beings, corrupted only by cultural dysfunction. Watching Boys Town, I thought of the next great eruption of that ideal in the ’60s and remembered a line from Crosby, Stills & Nash that almost stands as an epitaph for that era: “It’s been a long time coming / it’s gonna be a long time gone.” The album came out in 1969, the year Charles Manson called optimism like Father Flanagan’s into serious question.   

Mother Nature on the run: Now that I’m thinking of Crosby, Stills & Nash, that phrase popped to mind as title for this subsection, though it’s really about animals on the run. An editorial in yesterday morning’s paper, The case for banning wildlife-killing contests by Camillia H. Fox, outlines the common practice of for profit, recreational predator hunting contests.

Exercising Vixen the fox while a volunteer at the Folsom City Zoo, ca. 1996. She was a sweetheart, though a bit of a drama queen. Is this the enemy?

Exercising Vixen the fox while a volunteer at the Folsom City Zoo, ca. 1996. She was a sweetheart, though a bit of a drama queen. Is this the enemy?

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” said Mahatma Gandhi. It is heartening to learn that pushback is growing, both from citizens and state Fish and Game Commissions. In California, commission president, Michael Sutton said:

“I’ve been concerned about these killing contests for some time. They seem inconsistent both with ethical standards of hunting and our current understanding of the important role predators play in ecosystems.”

The way we treat the animals seems increasingly to be like the way we treat each other. Witness the case cited in the article, of the organizer of one of these killing contests, who (allegedly) pushed a 73 year old man to the ground for trying to photograph the event. We have to say, “allegedly” because, although the older man’s spine was fractured, the perpetrator has yet to be charged. This is not what our founding fathers meant when they spoke of a “well ordered militia.”

Of Jungians and Tibetans: I’ve recently started, with keen interest, The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra (2012) by Rob Preece, an in depth practitioner of both Jungian psychology and Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan iconography is striking and vivid, almost begging for Jungian analysis, but most western commentators, including Jung himself, have written about it as outsiders looking in.

Not Preece, who studied with Lama Thubten Yeshe, one of the greatest 20th century Tibetan teachers to come to America. Lama Yeshe understood Jung and understood that Buddhist practice has always undergone change when crossing geographic and cultural boundaries.

Preece writes of Col. Francis Younghusband, who visited Tibet in 1904. Seeing pictures of wrathful deities, Younghusband concluded that this was a culture that worshiped demons. Jungians may pounce on the concept of shadow, but that too, will often be wide of the mark. Although Tibetans and Jungians both understand such imagery as depicting internal qualities, in this case, it is wrathful energy in the service of compassion. It’s the energy of, “This shit’s gotta stop!” The energy that led Camilla Fox to start a foundation to stop the slaughter of animals.

Two large gatherings: Over the last two weekends, I took part in two separate events which drew hundreds of people. Both were immensely satisfying days of harmonious groups, drawn together by shared interest, working cooperatively and having a lot of fun doing so. It’s almost enough to make you believe in no such thing as a bad boy or girl, in Mickey Rooney’s America.

That fundamental goodness is precisely what the Tibetans and Buddhists in general believe, even with their finely honed awareness of both relative truth, here in the trenches, and ultimate truth. Our ultimate nature, they say, the ground of our being is pure, unstained by any event, the way the sky is unstained by pollution. The bad news is, it can take eons for us to figure this out; a weekend at Woodstock is clearly not enough.

Still, I always feel energized after such gatherings, even as that wrathful energy rises at the thought of all the artificial barriers that divide us in our day to day lives. That’s something everyone has to work out for themselves. Meanwhile, I felt like listening again to Crosby, Stills & Nash. I hope they’re right in this song: that it’s always darkest before the dawn.

No discouraging words revisited

Embed from Getty Images

In an earlier post, Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, I announced an experiment. Following my wife’s efforts to suspend negative thinking and speech during Lent, I decided to refrain from critical posts through Easter. Here is the first of several observations I will share.

Avoiding negative and pessimistic topics leaves me a lot fewer subjects to blog about! Many of my posts begin with news stories, but often it seems, to paraphrase the old Hee-Haw song, “If it weren’t for bad news, I’d have no news at all.” More nights than not, when I’ve checked my usual source websites (CNN, NPR, USA Today, etc.), I haven’t found a single upbeat or funny or quirky post that I wanted to write about. Sure, there was the girl scout who sold 12,000 boxes of cookies, but even if it’s a good thing for a kid to become a marketing wizard, that isn’t my kind of story.

The real question for me, however, is not the content of this weeks’ or that weeks’ news, but the systemic nature of our news media, which makes trials and tribulations endemic. These are news stories, after all, and a good story demands tension, upping the stakes, and all that. The question is not whether these are gripping stories, but the degree to which they mirror “reality.”

I’m thinking of a book I have often cited here, Neal Gabler’s, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (2000), in which the author says we are not just a post-modern culture but a “post reality culture.” Gabler locates the beginning of news-as-entertainment in America as “the penny press.” Prior to 1830, newspapers were single page “broadsheets” which appealed to the upper classes. Most of them cost six cents and the average daily circulation in New York City was 1200. Beginning with the Sun, which cost a penny, newspaper sales exploded. Gabler cites various reasons for the success of the penny press, but says that above all, it meshed with other sensational forms of entertainment:

“…for a constituency being conditioned by trashy crime pamphlets, gory novels and overwrought melodramas, news was simply the most exciting, most entertaining content a paper could offer, especially when it was skewed, as it invariably was in the penny press, to the most sensational stories. In fact, one might even say that the masters of the penny press invented the concept of news because it was the best way to sell their papers…”

In it’s first two weeks of publication, in 1835, the New York Herald ran stories that centered on “three suicides, three murders, the death of five persons in a fire, a man accidentally blowing off his head, an execution in France by guillotine and a riot in Philadelphia.” Needless to say, the Herald became wildly successful.

If it’s true that what we think of as “news” is an “invented concept,” we have to ask to what degree it mirrors reality and to what degree it creates it? Think about that the next time you open the paper or check your Tweets.

What I have discovered is how deep the contagion goes, even though I normally limit my sources, never watching the local news on TV, for instance. I confess that while I have cut negative posts from theFirstGates since March 7, I’ve probably doubled the number of depressing subjects I’ve posted on Twitter. In a way, I feel like I did a month after I quit smoking, and found that a nasty cough was still there. This is more serious than I thought at first. I’ll have more to say about it, but meanwhile, let’s change the tone as we end with a classic that came to mind at the start of this post.

Posts I haven’t yet written

Quite a few of my posts begin with ideas that rattle around until research or mulling them over generates enough interest to get me writing.  Time for contemplation and research have been in short supply recently and are likely to be for the next week, so grabbing this moment, I decided to mention a few things I am working on that may or may not get posts of their own in the future.

Water

With the drought on everyone’s mind, I was tempted to write a piece on the symbolism of water.  The problem is, (1) the subject is huge, (2) it’s already been done, and (3) a Star Trek episode keeps me from starting.  Every time I remember the silicon creatures who called humans, “ugly bags of mostly water,” all my attempts to stay focused and serious fail.  According to Mr. Data, it’s an accurate description of our species.  Thanks, dude.

There’s another approach to discussing water in California that centers on economics and politics.  I could discuss the millions of gallons we pour into fracking wells.  Or I could mention the president’s three hour visit to Fresno, complete with a photo-op in a dry field before jetting off to Rancho Mirage, but I don’t think I will.  If I want to get depressed over water, it’s easier just to rent Chinatown.

I’m writing a letter

Not just any letter.  I’m writing a letter of condolence to someone whose dog recently died.  It’s one paragraph forward and two back.  Those who have lost a beloved pet will understand how this letter is siphoning off most of the emotional energy I’m willing to invest in writing at this time.

Too many choices

A chain of associations based on some of my own experiences led to a fascinating but huge subject, the difficulty of having too many choices.

photo by Alexander Acker, 2010, CC BY-ND-2.0

photo by Alexander Acker, 2010, CC BY-ND-2.0

In his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz writes that seeking the “perfect” choice is “a recipe for misery.”  Other researchers say, “The current abundance of choice often leads to depression and feelings of loneliness,” and “Americans are paying for increased affluence and freedom with a substantial decrease in the quality and quantity of community.”

This kind of subject deserves elaboration, but if you don’t want to wait for me to get around to it, just Google on “too many choices” and see what you find.

I’m learning Spanish

Yup, I started last summer on Rosetta stone, for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to, or necessarily in order of importance):

  1. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
  2. Languages are supposed to be good for the brain.
  3. One night, flipping through the TV listing, it seemed like it would be fun to watch El Codico DaVinci on the Spanish station.

One of my Facebook friends who knew me back when, reminded me that in 7th grade Spanish, I was a class clown.  The reason was simple.  I believed I was “no good at languages,” and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  There’s a lot of satisfaction in erasing that misperception.  I came upon the Spanish version of book I have in English yesterday and flipped through it before deciding I’d better start in the children’s section.  I wonder if they have cartoons on Saturday morning on the Spanish channels?

Meanwhile, I don’t know why mid-February should be so busy, but it is, and I have to move on to the next thing, so let me summarize this post.

  1. Water is good, though flooding is bad.
  2. Few things are harder than losing a dog.
  3. Choosing things can be iffy.
  4. Learning a language sometimes carries the kind of excitement that learning to read must have done when we were kids.

Feel free to quote me.  Until next time, when maybe I’ll manage to write a real post…

What’s coming to TheFirstGates in 2014?

Courtesy Emma Paperclip, Creative Commons

Courtesy Emma Paperclip, Creative Commons

Thanks to everyone who visited this year, old friends and new.  Here are a few year end musings on where this blog may be going in 2014.   These are not resolutions.  Remembering Yoda’s words to Luke, “Do or do not, there is no try,” I don’t make resolutions.  These are sort-of-predictions, aka guesses, based on a line from a Grateful Dead song, “I can tell your future / just look what’s in your hand.”

In the case of theFirstGates, it should probably read, “look at what books are piled up on the table beside you.”  Looking at the titles in the stack, I predict more of the same, only new and (hopefully) better.

I’m currently reading a book I got for Christmas, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales.  The key word is complete – I haven’t read all the tales before.  The other great feature is the Arthur Rackham illustrations.  No one has ever painted Faerie like Rackham, and it’s a place I never tire of visiting.

Another new title is Trickster Makes this World by Lewis Hyde.  Not only is Trickster an ongoing object of fascination, but he pervades blogging just like the rest of life.  I’m reminded of this every time I hit Publish while meaning to click on Save.

And perhaps most important for TheFirstGates, I’m rereading The Dream and the Underworld, one of James Hillman’s important early works.  Here he turns the tables on psychology’s habit of translating the night world of dreams into the language of daylight; serving the ego, in other words.

Dream and the Underworld

Instead of asking what a dream means, Hillman asks what it wants.  This shift is fundamental to all of Hillman’s thought – psychology, the science of the psyche, in service to soul and soul-in-the-world.

Of great interest to me as a blogger is Hillman’s effort to see through literal events to the fantasies, the mythical layers that underly the stories we tell ourselves and the ones we see on the evening news.  The reality in our fantasies and the fantasy in all our realities.

The coming year is unique in one respect: 2014 marks the centennial of the start of that worldwide disaster misnamed “The Great War.”  The first world war has haunted me for years with its end-of-an-age immensity and sadness.  There are millions of stories to tell, and I’ll try to post a few here, from the bumbling youths who sparked the conflict to a young lieutenant named Tolkien who was sent to Mordor in 1916, though the generals called it The Somme.

And finally, as always I will continue to be on the lookout for those stranger-than-fiction events that leave us shaking our heads, wanting to laugh or cry or both at the strangeness of it all.

I wish you all a joyous New Year, and I hope we will all continue to share the emerging wonders of this online experience!