Sunday, December 14, 2014

THE JOY OF BLOGGING – A Virtual Person of the World

PART II (continued from Dec. 10 )

ILLUSTRATION: Carol Aust - carolaust.com

CREATURES OF HABIT
Several friends and family members have asked me about how to get started blogging. Of course, I’m happy to share what little knowledge and experience I have. After all, I ask them, what have you got to lose? At worst, you’ll spend countless hours writing and posting for your own and perhaps a few other sets of eyes. At best, you’ll become the next Life Hacker or Mashable, get absurdly rich and never leave your computer chair again.

Start with what you know best. Perhaps it’s stuff related to your nine-to-five, but which isn’t fully appreciated by your boss. Maybe it’s some hair-brained theory you can’t get folks to listen to. Or maybe, as in my case, it’s just a series of unforgettable life experiences strung together on threads of spirituality, philosophy or some other theme. Whatever you know, care deeply for, or just wonder about...that’s your content.

You produce something heart-felt and interesting 
on a regular timetable or people will go somewhere 
else for their blog fix.

A word of advice, though: If you’ve ever been in charge of producing a newsletter, you know that all the best intentions in the world are not enough to save you each week, month or quarter when that merciless deadline approaches. I have, and believe me, that publish-or-perish date seems to sneak up on you faster every issue. You’ve got to produce something heart-felt and interesting on a regular timetable or people will go somewhere else for their blog fix.

How often should you post? If you want your site to attract and retain a following, you must commit to a regular schedule. The frequency will hinge on how much you have to say, how efficient a writer you are, your resourcefulness in wrangling content from yourself and other contributors, and of course how much time you can devote to your writing.

(For the first year or so, I managed a new post every third day. Now, it’s more like once a week—and that seems to be the threshold at which I notice daily readership starting to fall off.) Remember, blog followers, like newspaper readers, radio listeners or podcast fans, are creatures of habit.

PACKAGING THE WORD
Just a word or two about design. Without even reading a word, it’s pretty easy to see who the credible bloggers are and who are the rank amateurs. Not even the most engaging content can hold its own against a poorly organized, unappealing, visually unwelcoming design.

PHOTO: r77designs.com

My goal was to position my One Man’s Wonder as far toward the professional end of that spectrum as I could with the resources at my disposal. As I mentioned, I spent nothing on design (though I am a career graphic designer and know how to make the best of even a limited number of design options). Perhaps you have a friend or two who are conversant in design and would give you some pointers.

Here are half a dozen design and style tips you might consider:
  • Strike a balance between verbal and visual content. Use sub-headings, featured quotes, photos and illustration to both support the story and lend visual relief to long blocks of type.
  • Limit your paragraphs to three sentences if possible. Even if technically it’s not a new thought, breaking it up like this makes it much easier to follow on a glowing screen.
  • Use fonts that are easy to read. Serif fonts are well-known to be easier to follow in blocks of text, while the occasional use of sans-serif type can lend variety for headings and captions. Try not to use more than two different type styles in a single post.
         If you need a bit of encouragement—
         let me know and I’ll be glad to help. 
  • Use comfortable language. You don’t want potential readers turned off by too much technical jargon or a stilted tone; they can get their fill of that in an academic textbook. Use connecting words and transitions to let one thought flow easily into the next.
  • Avoid garish colors and backgrounds that compete with your text. You’ve probably seen them: blogs where the author’s favorite color gushes from the page, drowning the other content. And that forest green type on a royal blue background? Bad idea! You want as much contrast as possible between text and what it sits on.
  • Maintain a consistent look. You wouldn’t wear a disguise when showing up for a second date, right? Well, your readers shouldn’t have to take a second look to recognize your blog either. Not to say you shouldn’t freshen up your face once in a while. Between the occasional make-over, though, keep it familiar with your usual fonts, colors and layout.
And, if you have any questions—or simply need a bit of encouragement—let me know and I’ll be glad to help. We bloggers, I've found, are mostly an open, supportive bunch. Happy blogging!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

THE JOY OF BLOGGING – A Virtual Person of the World

PART I  of two parts
 
ILLUSTRATION: kingdesignllc.com

About ten years ago I ran into an old schoolmate who told me how much he
was enjoying blogging. “Great!” I replied, not wanting to reveal my ignorance. Nonetheless, he explained briefly how it worked and that it allowed him an international forum for his best thinking and writing. He said it was easy; I
wasn’t so sure.

But the idea of blogging simmered in the stew of my ambitions. Then, a few years ago, I found myself on the verge of having my first book* published. One of the first questions I knowingly asked my publisher was, “Should I start a blog?” And they agreed that was a great idea.

The strategy, they told me—apparently the rapidly changing indie publishing industry’s new model of how to market a book—was to build, well before our release date, an online following for the kind of content featured in my book, and then pitch the release not just to the nebulous universe of Amazon and Barnes & Noble shoppers, but to my own, pre-vetted, captive audience.

So, a few years back, I started One Man’s Wonder. It was as easy as my friend had said it was; I used Google’s Blogger** platform, which provided me a number of predesigned formats and simple, intuitive tools to customize them to my tastes. And—unbelievably then as now—it was free.

        If it was good, I got comments from 
        readers, making it not just my soapbox, 
        but a lively forum.

The blog, along with my faithful empire-building efforts on Facebook and Twitter, delivered more or less as everyone had hoped. Sure enough, I gained followers who became fans who became buyers of my book. But I also got to connect with kindred spirits who simply share my love of Nature and my appetite for the spiritual nutrients it provides—some of whom were also working on their own books.


A few of these more-famous-than-I new friends, at least partly because of their familiarity with my work through the blog, were kind enough to endorse my book—which has made a huge difference in gaining it interest and credibility.

But One Man’s Wonder’s connection with my book soon became secondary, for blogging came to be a joy in its own right. I got to write about things I ponder all the time and that I love to share. If it was good, I got comments from readers, making it not just my soapbox, but a lively forum. I was grateful, too, for the occasional push-back, which helped me to examine both my thinking and my style.

MYSTICAL MINGLING
It was thrilling to count—in Blogger’s rudimentary analytics feature—the number of visitors I was getting every day, which operating systems and browsers they were using, the keywords they entered to find me, and in which countries they logged in.

I remember those first weeks when I was checking my page views every hour or two, hoping to break double figures for that day. Then, gradually, with the help of my growing followings on Facebook and Twitter, my daily readership grew to the hundreds and, on a good day, the thousands.

Even as I close in on 200,000 all-time page views, I realize these numbers mean little by themselves. Still, it’s been an amazing experience tracking them, watching them grow, and trying to imagine people in, say, China gazing down at the exact same screen view I was seeing—my writing, my photos, my thoughts and feelings.

    Connecting with someone across repressive 
    political or cultural barriers, like fishing 
    for giants in a deep, dark pool, borders on
    the mystical.

But the truest rewards of all have been the wonderful comments I get in person from readers, many of them “lurkers,” followers who never comment online, or who do so anonymously. Ranging from “Oh, I love the photos you share!” to “Such-and-such a post inspired me to get my kids off their little screens and outdoors for some real connection,” this feedback reminds me that my audience is far wider and more interested than the number of comments would suggest.

Visitors to One Man's Wonder have logged on from 75 countries.

Especially fascinating is the international following I seem to have built. At first I was blown away by noticing an occasional page view from Canada, Mexico or somewhere in Europe. But the list has grown, now comprising 75 countries from Argentina to Vietnam.

Connecting with someone on the other side of the world—often across repressive political or cultural barriers—is more than just gratifying; like fishing for the denizens of a deep, dark pool, it borders on the mystical.
(to be continued)

* UNDER THE WILD GINGER - A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder. You can order custom-dedicated, signed copies directly from the author at a special discount for the holidays—just $9.95. Just send Jeff an email: jeff@willius.com

** There are many other free blogging platforms, including WordPress, Typepad, Moveable Type and Tumbler, some of which have far more sophisticated features, but I’ve found Blogger’s intuitive design features—not requiring any knowledge of HTML programming—suit my needs very well.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

COMING TO OUR SENSES – How to Free Your Inner Child

What incredible contraptions we humans are. Our bodies make even the most complex machine we’ve ever devised look like a child’s toy. They’re an astounding integration of systems, each a marvel in itself—musculoskeletal, circulatory, pulmonary, digestive and immune, among others.


Perhaps the most amazing of all is the nervous system. Sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell are the receptors we use to sense the world around us. They afford our brains the reach they need to collect data about the conditions and resources we need to survive.

They tell us when danger is present, compel us to satisfy our hunger and thirst, and let us communicate. Should one sense fall short of the job, the system calls in reinforcements from the others. Our senses nourish us with learning, recreation and spiritual connection. And they indulge us with pleasure. 

As blessed as most of us are to have all our senses, too many of us under-appreciate and under-use them. Life’s tough for a sense. First of all, since few of us any longer depend solely on our raw, native senses for survival, they’ve gotten soft and bloated. What’s left of them gets harried, waylaid and drowned out by all the demands—and perceived demands—of life in the 21st century.

  Curiosity does for our perception what a strong 
  sense of self does for our health and well-being.

SHAPING UP
But we can rescue our poor senses. It’s not hard to do, but it takes some re-prioritizing and a bit of practice. Just like when we’ve failed to properly feed and exercise our bodies for a while, we must assert some discipline to get back in shape.

No, you can’t just sit on the couch or at your desk all day; no, as hungry as you might be for it, you can’t pig out on the tempting, but far-from-nutritious virtual experience and “connection” heaped on your plate by a phone or iPad screen.


Reclaiming our native senses also requires the recruitment of an ally, a quality no less deserving than intuition of status as our “sixth sense.” Curiosity is the impulse that fuels the senses. It does for our perception what a strong sense of self does for our health and wellbeing.

We’re all born with curiosity—lots of it. As far as we know, we’re the only creatures with the luxury of possessing it for reasons not immediately related to survival. Other animals may track a smell, follow a sound or turn over a rock to see if there might be something to eat. We get to do so just for the joy of discovery, just for the fun of it.

Turn off all the little i-robots conspiring to keep you in your seat under their all-consuming spell.


FREEING YOUR INNER CHILD
So, how do you start? Just ten or fifteen years ago, I would have said just observe a five-year-old child. Sadly, though, children, even more so than we adults, have been abducted by the fat, lazy aspects of technology.

So perhaps the best way to picture success is to remember what childhood was like for you. No phone; no laptop; no 24/7 news scaring you into believing conflict and danger are ever-present in your life; no ├╝ber-litigious legal system instilling fear into anyone daring to let kids experience spontaneous, parent-free, outdoor adventures.


Try to channel that spontaneity and freedom. Feel the rekindling of that old inner fire of energy, awareness and curiosity. Meditate, in whatever way you like, to rise above the myriad “adult” concerns holding those native instincts back.

Turn off all the little i-robots conspiring to keep you in your seat under their all-consuming spell. And get outside in Nature, whether that means in a remote wilderness, a national park or just that little patch of grass down the street, and let her draw out your senses as only she can.

         What’s so hard about it is actually 
         that it’s so utterly simple.

OUT OF CONTROL
And finally—this is the bitterest pill for many folks—let go the illusion of control that’s come to delude nearly every one of us trying to cope in what seems an ever-more-out-of-control world. Surrender your senses and your spirit to the ever-wise, all-knowing oneness of the universe. For it knows, even if you do not, where peace and wisdom reside.

Many find it hard to grasp this exercise in faith, because somehow it’s gotten confused with something complex and abstract. Some would have you believe that we have to go on long, arduous quests for it. We think we have to pay people to guide us to it; we take all sorts of elixirs to bring it on.

But what’s so hard about it is actually that it’s so utterly simple, and—perhaps the biggest obstacle to our sensing like kids once again—we’ve gotten conditioned not to trust that simplicity.

We must re-learn it, for the sake of our own health and happiness, for that of our children and grandchildren, and for that of this precious, vulnerable planet.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – Tip #102

Savor the luscious fusion of sense and emotion.















There’s a place where all the sense impressions that come into you churn and stew with stuff that’s looking for a way out.

You keep what you need, but the essence, the aroma of it, exudes through your skin, inviting more, inviting others.


(Happy Thanksgiving to my U.S. readers!)

Friday, November 21, 2014

TALL ORDER – How Yao Ming and You Can Save the Elephants

Anyone see the PBS documentary the other night about the poaching of African elephants, and NBA gentle giant Yao Ming?

PHOTO: WildAid

Yao is appealing to his upwardly-mobile Chinese countrymen to understand the impact of their appetite for decorative ivory craft—not just how it's decimating elephant populations, but how it stresses entire ecosystems, destroying both ecology and economy for countless Africans who have very little else.

 If you abhor the slaughter of nearly 100 of these 
 noble creatures every day for the sake of folks’ 
 pretty little trinkets, here’s what you can do. 


PHOTO: collect.at
I’ve decided to support Yao’s efforts and, if you abhor the slaughter of nearly 100 of these noble creatures every day for the sake of folks’ pretty little trinkets, please consider joining me. Here’s what you can do:

  • Check out Wild Aid (www.wildaid.org) to see what the only substantial organization coming at poaching by drying up the ivory market (and the outfit that enlisted Yao’s help in a massive P.R. campaign to that end) is doing.
  • Support Wild Aid if you like what you see. Donate, volunteer, or at the very least let others know what they and Yao are doing.
      Ask them to help spread word...
      that having ivory on their curio shelf 
      is no longer cool.
  • Contact anyone you know who lives in or knows someone living in China, and ask them to help spread word to their countrymen, friends & family who may not realize what’s at stake, that having ivory on their curio shelf is no longer cool. Include a link to Wild Aid or to any news coverage of Yao Ming’s heartwarming campaign for elephants.
  • Share your interest with your own family, friends and colleagues, and ask them to help stir up some buzz.
  • Pray—for Yao and his challenging work; for organizations like Wild Aid fighting to protect elephants; for desperately poor Africans who feel they have no other option but to participate in the slaughter to find other employment—perhaps helping protect wildlife or in safari tourism; for buyers and traders of ivory to make a compelling emotional connection to the results of their actions.
  • And pray for the elephants.

PHOTO: Animal People News


Thursday, November 13, 2014

THIS ONE’S A GAS – The Home-grown Science of a Twelve-year-old

The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on. Sometimes people get their ends reversed.  – THEODORE ROOSEVELT

Twelve-year-old boys, it seems, are especially good at discovering and exploiting the quirks of the human body.

One of my grade school pals showed me this truly odd little experiment applying both physiology and physics. First, you have to yawn. (We learned it’s pretty easy to make oneself do so on demand.) Yawning does several things: it opens your mouth; it draws your tongue back and up; and it produces a rush of saliva (tears too).

          Surely, this was science at its best, 
          though I’m not sure the rationale would 
          have held water with our parents.

While your mouth is still open and your tongue back, you force your tongue quickly down and forward. The little pool of saliva that’s collected in the soft pocket under your tongue gets squeezed, and, if you’re lucky, a few drops will squirt out, maybe a foot or two. Needless to say, we had contests to see how far each of us could squirt. (But Mom, we were just studying fluid dynamics!)

(I found out much later that we weren’t the first to discover this odd practice. In fact, there’s a name for it: gleeking. Go ahead, google it; I dare you.)
 

FIRE IN THE HOLE
I’ll never forget my first lessons on the combustibility of methane and hydrogen. One day, at a friend’s house, he was all excited to show me something. I thought, oh, the lucky stiff; he got a new baseball glove. When we got up to his room, he shut the door, pulled the shades and slumped down in a chair.

     Usually, matches meant we were about to 
     light either a cigarette or a cherry bomb.

He asked me to hand him the book of matches on his desk. Usually, matches meant we were about to light either a cigarette or a cherry bomb. This time, he just told me to shut up, watch and listen. He tore out a match. Then he drew his legs up in the air. I could see he was straining, the veins on his neck standing out and his face getting red. For some reason this didn’t surprise me.

There was a dull flupping sound as he passed some gas. He quickly struck the match and moved it right to his crotch. Swear to God, a grapefruit-sized ball of blue flame poofed between his legs.

Surely, this was curiosity and wonder at its best—the way only kids can do it. I’m not sure the science rationale would have held water with our parents. But for me it was far more than science, more than an appreciation of the wonders of Nature that reside on us and in us; this was the stuff of legend.

             

Thursday, October 30, 2014

AGELESS WONDER — How To Channel Your Inner Five-Year-Old

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
 SATCHEL PAIGE

As those of you know who follow my efforts here and in the social media, I’m a champion of reclaiming curiosity, wonder and regular access to Nature for a generation of kids robbed of those birthrights by well-intentioned parental interference, socioeconomic barriers and the glow of three- to ten-inch screens. I’ll continue to lobby for, at the very least, equal time for the wonders of technology and those of real, first-hand, low-tech experience in the out-of-doors.


And this isn’t just about kids; I actually make my case for people of all ages and circumstances. Everyone needs a regular dose of “vitamin N,” not just on weekends or vacations, but in our daily lives. Without it, we deprive ourselves of life’s most abundant font of peace, reflection, mental clarity, spiritual inspiration and general replenishment. Perhaps most importantly, without Nature we forget who we are and where we came from.

           Without Nature we forget who we are 
            and where we came from.

SITTING AND SETTLING

We all start life with an abundance of the natural tools we need to commune with Nature—curiosity, playfulness, creativity, spontaneity, wonder. But something happens as we grow up and become acculturated to the strictures of adult life. Ambition, expectations, responsibility and a cabal of other seductions conspire to rob us of those simple joys.

We learn to settle for Nature as an occasional treat, if at all, and something that takes an extraordinary effort. But we need the calming, healing, restorative effects of vitamin N every day and in every aspect of our lives.

That need to be touched by Nature all the time doesn’t end when we reach some arbitrary age—that of retirement, of moving to assisted living, or even of winding down our final days in this life. Indeed, as I’ve preached so often on this forum, our need for Nature may be most vital during both our first and last years of life.

Our entire culture has alienated itself from Nature at a rate unprecedented in human history.

As a man of advancing years, I can only hope that I—and certainly those entrusted with my care as I come to depend on them—will recognize that need and honor my express wish that vitamin N be part of my care-and-treatment plan until the very end. I want to be outdoors, feel the sun, smell the flowers and interact with the animals and birds. I want to go fishing.

But there may be some obstacles to clear. Many folks are so wowed by medical technology's incredible devices and pharmaceuticals that they seem to have forgotten Nature's powers. In fact, our entire culture has alienated itself from Nature at a rate unprecedented in human history. If we don't devalue it or forget it altogether, we fear it. And, even if we’re surrounded by Nature, too many of us have lost the ability to understand and embrace it the way we did when we were children.

That can change.

So here are my top-ten tips on how, even at a ripe old age, to get up, get moving and embrace Nature like a five-year-old again:

1. Make time.
You’ve spent most of your life since high school conforming to schedules and deadlines. The self-serving muse of competition has convinced you that if you don’t work during break, after hours and even while you’re on “vacation,” someone else will and steal your job. Hogwash! Declare it mental health time, a medical emergency, whatever takes. For that’s more than some crafty “dog-ate-my-homework" excuse; it’s the truth.

2. Get outdoors. Between household chores and the big game on TV, the sirens of sloth try to persuade you that it’s easier and more predictable to just stay inside and relax. That’s okay up to a point, but you’ll almost always unwind and restore yourself—physically, mentally and spiritually—more completely if you get outside and let Nature do her magic on you.

3. Explore.
Human beings are hard-wired to explore. Sadly, we’ve decided to let devices, and someone else’s legwork, do the exploring for us. We're coming disturbingly close to the point of googling natural wonders instead of expecting to actually observe them.


4. Touch. The idea of fiddling with things just to fully experience them was all but beaten out of us by the time we were about eight. Hey, you’re an adult now; you know to be reasonably careful, and besides, you can pay for it if you break it, right? It’s high time to reclaim this, the only one of our senses that's always reciprocal.

5. Be patient.
Here’s one place where maybe you don’t want to act like a little kid; often, with Nature, you just sit for long periods without anything happening. That’s the beauty of it; you enjoy what’s there, not something you expect to happen. Don’t worry, if you follow step 1, you’ve already taken the biggest step.

        As in nearly any aspect of life, you see 
        pretty much what you expect to see.

6. Hang out with like-minded folks. Depriving yourself of Vitamin N is just like any unhealthy habit; codependency helps support it. If you have trouble hoisting your friends off the couch, go by yourself…or get new friends.

7. Take youngsters with you. The key here is to get them out there in field or forest, set a few parameters and then let them alone; don't be responsible for entertaining them. Nature is the consummate playmate. It invites kids to exercise their curiosity, wonder and sense of play. Watch carefully what they do—digging, building, playing with sticks, rocks and water...and then you do the same. The simpler, the better.

8. Let go.
Have you ever seen young children playing who looked like they had the weight of the world on their shoulders? It’s impossible. Same for you. Suspend your need for control. Put the stresses of “adult life” into a musty corner of your consciousness and let spontaneity and joy make your day.

9. Insist on Nature as part of your elder care. If you want vitamin N to be an integral part of your care during your old age, speak up now. Don't trust the medical community to think of it. And do make sure your family and closest friends know your wishes. In my case, I've spelled it out: take me outdoors every day, weather permitting; if I can't go out, bring Nature to me—surround me with plants and animals I can touch and hold, play recordings of Nature's sounds, read to me of people's adventures in Nature.

10. Expect wonder. Believe it or not, there's an element of faith in all of this. As in nearly any aspect of life, you see pretty much what you expect to see. If you come into any experience with cynicism and doubt, sure enough, you’ll be disappointed. Approach it with an open mind, heart and spirit, and whatever happens—or doesn’t happen—will end up somewhere between cool and awesome.