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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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.

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, by John Snape, CC-BY-SA-3.0

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, by John Snape, CC-BY-SA-3.0

This morning I showed my wife a newspaper photo depicting a politician who closely resembles a recent movie villain.  “No one will vote for him,” I said.

She laughed and agreed, but a little while later said, “Wow, that made it hard.  I’m trying to give up criticism for Lent.”

I apologized, for I know how hard real spiritual discipline can be.  Then I reflected that her resolution echoes a thought I’ve had on and off for some time – cutting, or at least reducing, the negative topics and posts in this blog.  The period of Lent, about seven more weeks, seems like a good trial period, so I’m going to try this experiment and figure it out as I go along.

When considering this move in the past, I’ve had fears along the lines of becoming Pollyanna or having nothing to write about if I close my eyes to the world’s crap.  I am confident, however, that tens of thousands of writers can take up the slack if I take a break.

There are many reasons to do so.  First and foremost for me is this simple truth from Zen teacher, Cheri Huber, so simple and yet so easy to forget:  “The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.”  

The same truth is expressed in completely different terms in Scott Adams’s new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.  This cartoon genius who gave us Dilbert says:  “Reality is overrated and impossible to understand with any degree of certainty. What you do know for sure is that some ways of looking at the world work better than others.”  (I plan to review this book here soon).

A final, obvious example, given his recent visit to this country, is the Dalai Lama.  Beyond doubt, he’s the most joyous person who lives in the public spotlight.  I’ve never been in his physical presence, but I have met a few spiritual masters, men and women of several traditions, and for me, they all had one thing in common: when you get near them, you pick up their joy.  And I mean a profound joy, the kind that sometimes has left my jaw aching from smiling so much more than I am used to.  I’m sure the Dalai Lama is like that.

Dalai Lama with Christ University Choir, Bangalore, India

Dalai Lama with Christ University Choir, Bangalore, India

One of the many things he has said that always struck me concerns a difficulty he had when he first came to the west: he could not at first believe the degree of shame and self-hatred that are native to our culture.  It was completely new and shocking to him to hear such a thing, for there was nothing like it at all in Tibet.  I believe it’s no coincidence that you never hear the Dalai Lama say critical things about anyone else.  He doesn’t even criticize the Chinese, saying only, “They helped me cultivate patience.”

As I end this post, I realize some readers outside the U.S. might not be familiar with its title, which comes from an old western song, “Home on the Range:”

Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

“Home on the Range” is the state song of Kansas, and like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” that other great song that reminds us of Kansas, it seems to ask the question, “Why not I?” Or, “Why not us?”

Asking “why not” is itself a classic spiritual discipline.  What factors hold me back from the kind of life I want to live.  In my own case, criticism of self and others is part of that mix.  Let’s see what happens here over the next seven weeks…

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!

Some blog reflections and an anniversary

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I posted my first article here three years ago today – I thought it was the 30th until I looked it up a little while ago. There are more pressing dates to remember in June – our wedding anniversary for one, and the dog birthdays, but this occasion brings to mind some things I discovered that first summer of blogging.

A few days before my first post, I attended an all day blogging seminar hosted by the local branch of the California Writer’s Club. The teacher had an unusual qualification – he actually made a good living as a blogger.  He did this by running eight different blogs on eight different topics which gained him 50,000 – 80,000 hits a month.

Beyond passing along the mechanics of WordPress, the seminar was geared toward his approach, which aimed at drawing advertisers and eyeballs.  At first I tried to follow his rules, ones like “Posts should run between 150-250 words in length.”  I still mostly aim for the 150 minimum – I trust his research suggesting that Google’s search algorithms favor messages at least that long, but I’ve tossed almost all his other rules.  I did so because something unexpected began to happen  – blogging took on a life of its own.

I’d taken the seminar for the worst of reasons.  I had finished one novel and started another, and I fell prey to the notion, passed around in writing groups and magazines, that aspiring writers should migrate to social media “to build their platforms.”

From the start, this advice reminded me of something annoying that periodically happened in my technology day job.  During cyclical downturns, when vertical mobility dried up, upper management would dream up busy-work tasks, like “write a five year career plan.”  Given the dizzying pace of technological change, almost any kind of five year plan seemed like a joke.  Fortunately, my supervisor agreed, so I’d email him something like, “My plan is to still have a job in five years,” and he’d mark it “Done.”

Once the blogging door started to open, I did something similar with the concept of “platform:” borrowing the tech concept of “just-in-time inventory,” I decided to wait until I needed one!

That may be a long wait, as it turns out, because the “blogging door” was a new entryway into writing-as-a-way-to-discover-things.”  That was a door I’d let close on my fiction, because of inexperience more than anything else.

When I started my first novel, during a sabbatical from work, I would sometimes jump up at 5:30am, wide awake.  “I wonder what’s going to happen today?”  Later I realized the first novel was a mess, though I loved every minute of writing it.  I joined groups, attended seminars, and devoured how-to-articles.  Somewhere along the line, my stories stopped being mine.  Once I knew what was going to happen on any particular day, I was no longer interested.

The blogging door remains open.  Here I make new discoveries, surprising myself, and never know for sure where it’s going today.  I also get to share the amazing discoveries of others, like the post I re-blogged last week in which Kristen Lamb presents a simple but powerful way of keeping the doors of discovery open in fiction (Write FAST and Furious).

I enjoy many blogs that have a singular focus, and this week of milestones, I found myself recalling the words of that first blogging teacher, who advised that this is the only way to go.  I entertained the notion for maybe 60 seconds.  It simply wouldn’t work for me, a poster boy for the late James Hillman’s concept of “the polytheistic psyche.”

Hillman often used the Greek pantheon to illustrate his concept of the "polytheistic psyche"

Hillman often used the Greek pantheon to illustrate his concept of the “polytheistic psyche”

As Michael Ventura, a journalist and friend of Hillman’s put it:  “For too long Western thought has mistaken the impulse to unify for the entity itself (the psyche) that needs such an impulse because of it’s very multiplicity.”  

Ventura also said, “If you are the only one in the room, it is still a crowded room.”

***

In the beginning, I called this blog, “thefirstgate,” singular.  I discuss the source of the name, the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, in my About page.  Then, as I discovered there are other interesting “first gates,” I made the name plural, and even registered the domain name, firstgates.com.

In the Spring of 2012, I received a notice that a similar domain name, thefirstgate.com (singular) had become available, and I could buy it.  I did so, and since then, I’ve played with the notion of changing the name to emphasize my original inspiration.

I began this post, intending to announce a change to the singular form.  Then I came upon this passage in Michael Ventura’s Shadow Dancing in the USA, 1985 (out of print).  Here he describes the theory of “the polytheistic psyche:”

“…the notion that we have not a single center, but several centers; that each of these centers may act independently of each other; and that each center has in turn various active aspects, or shadings; and that all these centers are unified more by an atmosphere, an overall mood and rhythm, than by anything as solid as…an ego.”

No way, after reading that, could I surrender an ounce of multiplicity!  So on the occasion of this anniversary, I will predict more of the same – not knowing quite what I’m going to say when I sit down to write.  False starts and dead ends on occasion, but hopefully, ongoing and interesting surprises for all of us.