Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The New Pandemic Lifestyle Is the Old Lifestyle--Ramped Up

The basic reality is this: my federal and state governmental policies regarding the COVID-19 epidemic are driven by politics rather than medical science. My wife and I are in the higher risk category because of our age. No vaccine exists, and scientists are still trying to discover medicines that help lessen the impact of the virus if one is infected.

The basic reality is that I'm living in a hostile environment. In my state of residence, Iowa, infections are still spiking even as the governor "opens" the state, even though she never really "closed" it. From April 20 to May 12, the state's confirmed coronavirus cases rose from 3,159 to 12,912, an increase of more than 300 percent in 22 days.

The basic question is this: How do I stay alive and healthy in this environment? 

There is no quick solution to this pandemic, especially since state and federal governments are making decisions that ignore medical realities. Our current situation will last for years, probably--at least for my age group. I feel like a villager in the African savannah that has a thorn fence around the village. Lions prowl outside the fence, but still one has to leave the security of that barrier for water, for food, for taking care of the herds. My armor is not a warrior's spear, though. It's knowledge. Even during the good old days of just-plain-flu season, there were safety protocols. I have to continue with those--ramped up.
  1. Stay home and limit my interactions with people outside my "safety bubble." Currently my wife and I only interact closely with our daughter's family--daughter and two grandchildren. We first quarantined for two weeks and now closely maintain our bubbles of safety, as best we can, going out for food as little as possible.
  2. Heightened awareness of safety protocols when in public. Going out to a store or business is not a casual act. I consider the need, and if there is a need, then I fulfill the task, using a mask and having an alcohol sanitizer spray bottle with me. I sanitize the car, all the places I touched, when arriving home. 
  3. When packages arrive, we treat them as suspect. When a package arrives, we follow the advice that there is low risk that the package has been contaminated with the virus--but not zero risk. We remove the contents of the package, place the box outside, and then wash our hands.
  4. Long-term plans. Recognizing that our environment has changed, we are establishing long-term lifestyle habits. Masks and hand sanitizer when in public will most likely be a reality for at least the next couple of years. Social distancing will become a norm. When school begins again, we recognize that may impact our interactions with our extended family. Lacking specific information, we'll just have to wait and see. We are establishing a routine that will continue for a long time, and we are ready to modify that routine based on incoming information.
  5. Stress management. These are times of increased stress, so my wife and I make sure we communicate, get our rest, and regularly continue our lifelong practice of meditation. We have goals to limit our focus on the news. It's important to know what's going on, but it's also possible to spend too much time obsessing on repetitive, negative news. From my side, I need to get the news but not then read the ten additional stories, analyses, and opinions regarding that particular bit of news. 
  6. Maintaining a healthy, positive routine. In our family, our positive routines over the years have included bicycling and hiking, gardening, camping, and cooking and eating healthy, natural foods. We believe we can maintain our healthy, positive lifestyle yet also maintain our safety protocols. Bicycling and hiking will still necessitate social distancing. Camping will be local. We'll cook at home and not hit the restaurants.
We are always ultimately the ones responsible for our own lives. Especially in our current times when our federal and state governments are saying that there are more important issues than our individual lives, it's vital that we look to and plan for our own healthy future. There have always been lions outside the thorn barrier that surrounds the village. Those lions are more numerous now, and closer and more actively agressive.

Yesterday I turned in our mail-in ballot requests at our county courthouse. I did so safely, following all the protocols--mask, sanitizer, distancing, and don't touch your face. I know whom I'm voting for, and it won't be for candidates that consider me expendable. I plan to vote, but in the meantime, I've got a few fun and healthy activities to engage in. As Voltaire said in the last line of Candide, "That is all very well and good, but let us tend our gardens."

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Talkin' Dylan's "Murder Most Foul"

"Murder Most Foul" is Bob Dylan's longest song and, according to the headlines, also his first #1 hit. Strange for the "voice of his generation," a label Dylan has evidently never liked. Do I like the seventeen minute song? I'm not sure that I do, but does anyone really "like" a song that long? And we're not talking or including classical music here. Probably liking the song isn't the right question.

I've interacted with the song "Murder Most Foul" in three different ways: the official video release, a video with visual lyrics, and then just the print lyrics.
My best experience with the song was listening to the song while following along with the visual lyrics.

When Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize in Literature was announced in 2017, it was with the following observation: “He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition," by Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy. Darius continues on to say that Dylan has been "reinventing" himself for fifty-four years. It's not controversial to say that "Murder Most Foul" unfolds another iteration of Bob Dylan the bard.

The song is more of a chant than a song in the traditional three-minute servings most folks are familiar with. The music is supportive, amplifying mood and creating a tonal milieu for the song. The lyrics are contemplative, even casual, lacking the intensity and focus of songs such as "All Along the Watchtower" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," for instance.

Ironically, I don't think "Murder Most Foul" would make it as a three-minute cut, and it certainly wouldn't have been a #1 hit. The song's strength won't be discovered by comparing it to other popular hits, even though the song references a great many tunes. A more compelling affirmation of the song can be made by comparing it to the work of two American poets: Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg and their respective poems "Song of Myself" and "Howl." The strength of these poems is the poetic technique of listing or cataloging--of heaping on image after image. This technique can also be seen in epic poems, where tribes or city-states and their heroes are listed.

The strength of cataloging is that quantity has its own quality. The rolling on of the images, the creative evocation which stimulates our sense memory has a unique power to create a powerful emotional landscape for a reader/listener's journey. The speaker in the poem reminisces about a generation's loss of innocence with the assassination of a president, the loss of an ideal vision (hardly a new observation, one reviewer notes). The reminiscing is a stream of consciousness ramble, seventeen minutes of on-and-on, and all that ultimately hold the song-poem together is the cataloging of songs and musicians, a long rambling list of associations, that ultimately creates an effect: we have lived a good life, a varied life, and a worthy life, which can be appreciated best from a cosmic perspective, in its totality. The points and pieces seem random and pointless, but all together, meaning exists.

I'm reminded of Milton's Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man," where Milton sought to justify the ways of God to man, and Pope sought to vindicate the ways of God to man. Milton wrote from a climate of belief and faith; Pope wrote from the time of the Age of Reason, where skepticism and satire were the darlings of the time. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" justified that Flower Power spirit of protest and idealism. It resonated in a timely manner the emotions of many during Dylan's early recording years. "Murder Most Foul" vindicates that spirit of protest and idealism in the current "OK boomer" climate, a climate where younger generations are asking, even mocking or ridiculing, the accomplishments of the grey-haired Boomer generation.

It's appropriate that Dylan released the song at this time when our culture is being challenged by an impartial host, the novel coronavirus. Isn't it healthy to look back and see that the perfect idealism and hopes of youth don't need to be reassessed as failures just because time has worn and blurred the vision? Lack of perfection is not failure. I'm reminded of what William Faulkner said in his  Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help a man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
It's notable that in order to fully appreciate "Murder Most Foul," one has to examine the wholeness. One has to consider the poem in relation to the great works of literature. One has to pay attention. And, finally, just like many great works of literature, one interacts with "Murder Most Foul," appreciates its message, and then sets it aside. It's fulfilling interacting with the song/poem, but it's not light entertainment. I'm not going to be listening to the song while cruising down the road. Maybe "Lay Lady Lay."

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Monday, April 20, 2020

Movie Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Having sat on my Amazon streaming "Watch List" for over a month, last night my wife and I finally watched the Tom Hanks' movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. We chose the movie because we felt it would deliver a "feel good" experience, and certainly our lives in the time of COVID-19 can use a little respite from the tension. I was surprised, though, at just how good the movie is, just how good the script, the acting, and the direction of the human moments in the film resonated with me.

The IMDb describes the storyline of the movie as being based on the real-life relationship between Fred Rogers and a journalist.
Two-time Oscar®-winner Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism, based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod. After a jaded magazine writer (Emmy winner Matthew Rhys) is assigned a profile of Fred Rogers, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness, and decency from America's most beloved neighbor.
In a RogerEbert.com review of the movie, reviewer Brian Tallerico makes two important points about the film. One is that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not just a straight-up documentary of Fred Rogers: "However, this is not a biopic of the man who helped raise millions of Americans. In fact, Rogers is a supporting character, which is in itself a daring way to tell this story. This is more a movie about how Rogers’ beliefs about acceptance and forgiveness could help anyone, no matter their age." His other observation is that the movie is a feel-good experience, but that the movie doesn't lapse into saccharine-sweet platitudes. "Clearly, 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' is what could be called 'a message movie.' It’s designed to make you call your estranged parent when it’s over, and pull on those emotional heartstrings, but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative. It’s on the right side of that line that divides things that are genuinely sweet and calculated in their manipulations. " Tallerico's observations are accurate. The movie is dramatic look at the Rogers/Vogel relationship, and the cinematic exploration of that relationship inspires one to examine one's own relationships and life goals.

So I've been thinking about the movie--and, yes, my life in the time of this pandemic--and as sometimes happens with me, I am serendipitously reminded of two other American icons, Henry David Thoreau and E.E. Cummings.
  • Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." (Chapter 2, Walden)
  • Cummings: "since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you". 
First, I did some research on Fred Rogers' life, mostly to find out if the urban legend that he was a Special Forces soldier prior to his work with children and television. The answer is that he was not. He registered for the military draft but was found physically unqualified later. He graduated from college with a degree in music composition and also later graduated from divinity school and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, being asked by the church to continue his work with television and children. Later in life he became a vegetarian, saying that he didn't want to eat anything that had a mother, a line used in the movie.
I had thought that if Rogers had been a Special Forces soldier, then it would perfectly explain his intense focus and commitment seen in the movie. It would provide an inner motivation for him to live a nurturing, supporting life. Research ousted that convenient motivation, though. He was shy and overweight in his youth, though, so he did have his struggles with social interaction. The simple truth is that Rogers was an individual with a strong inner life and with a desire to make the world a better place. Puppets, music, and a deliberate lifestyle were aspects of his life that helped him be the man the world came to know and admire.

I was reminded of Henry David Thoreau's time at Walden Pond, when he simplified his life in order to pare his existence down to the essentials "to life deliberately." In the movie and in my research of Rogers' life, there was a sense that he had a goal in life for himself, a sort of spiritual benchmark that he held himself to, developing activities to help him refine and improve himself, as Thoreau chose time alone at Walden Pond. Thoreau built a cabin; Rogers built a routine and style of behavior and a children's educational television program. The movie, especially in its one-on-one scenes between the Rogers and Vogel characters, captures the inner intensity of the man. 

E.E. Cummings' poem was conjured by the quiet intensity of the Fred Rogers character that actor Tom Hanks captured so well. (By the way, research mentioned that Hanks was cousins with Rogers, six times removed.) Hanks captures the intensely inner life that was central to who Rogers was, an inner life that included insecurities and anger along with great personal strength and integrity. I am reminded of an acetylene cutting torch, which once lit can be focused down to an intensely hot, defined cutting flame. Rogers' passion was intensely focused, highly effective, and yet also at times eccentric because of that intensity.

The movie's focus on the journalist's life with Rogers as a secondary character was brilliant. Rogers' life was one of service, and how better to portray that than have his character in a supporting role? My wife and I watched the movie twice, two nights in a row. In this time of pandemic, it was truly uplifting and inspiring to watch a movie about rebirth, about spiritual strength and goodness. Rogers' wife tells the journalist at one point in the movie that her husband isn't a saint, that he had to work hard to be who he was. But it's good work, and "Mercy!" (as Rogers exclaims in the movie), how important it is for us to work at being good so that we can do good work in our lives. 

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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Mysterious 10,896 Page Views

Mount Shasta, Northern California.
"Just a Tiny Trailer and a Bit of Snow"
I was feeling okay with the 4,000-5,000 page views per month for my tiny trailer camping blog Green Goddess Glamping. There are other camping blogs with many more readers, for sure. After being the sole writer and administrator for my blog's eighteen-month existence, though, I was happy to see the monthly page views creep up to the six and seven thousand range. Then came last month with a page views count of 10,896, and I had to ask myself, "What's that all about?"

I use the Blogger platform for my blog. I've heard others are better--"more versatile"--but I'm familiar with Blogger and have learned a few tricks that allow me to meet my blogging needs. The Blogger dashboard does have a "Stats" option as part of the Blogger service.
"Stats is an important piece of the blogging puzzle, as it allows you to track your blog's traffic and find out exactly what your audience is looking for. As such, integrated, real-time stats has been one of the most frequently requested features from our users."

Blogger Stats is telling me that last month Green Goddess Glamping received 10,896 page views. Studying the graph Stats supplies (vertical Views/horizontal days of the month), the views ranged from around 750 to 50, reflecting the day/night cycles that are usual . . . except for February 16, which recorded almost 2,000 page views. Then for the next 10-11 days, there was strong page hits. Why?

Here are the Green Goddess Glamping page views per post during that time, revealing consistent viewing of the articles. The odd detail is that I had not posted an article on February 16, when the viewer page hits spiked. Another graph provides information on Top Referrers, the major being Facebook because of my tiny trailer group activity. Google and the Tear Jerker forum were listed. I have recently joined Tear Jerkers. Continuing down the list of declining referrers, we get to the last: "Other," which lists 6.58K--and there we have the source of that great increase in page views. And yet we don't, do we? I mean, how does an identification of "Other" help me?


The next Stats lists provides URLs for referrers, but the list still lumps the large number of Other also for the URLs, providing no detail. The next chart lists browsers, with no surprises, the majority being Chrome, Safari, Mobile, Firefox, and Mobile Safari, with a long list of minor browsers.

I thought that perhaps Facebook Ads might be the source of the increase. I sometimes boost a post that I think will have wider appeal in order to increase my exposure to readers with the same interests that my blog covers. However, my last ad had finished on January 24, so there was no correlation.

In the end, it doesn't seem like I'm going to be able to get that bit of information about what I did right to create that spike in page views. Maybe it wasn't anything I did, just some random bit of attention. Maybe the "Other" views were really some attention from China, which is not listed on the views list. However, I do have a Stats map that marks where the views come from, and the overwhelming page hits were from the United States.

It's a mystery, so I'll just keep on keepin' on. I wish I could find out, though. If anyone has insights, please contact me!

Monday, February 24, 2020

Building a Blog with Content

I've read quite a few articles about how to develop a readership for a blog. Some have focused on procedures, such as labeling the properties of photos so links will result when searching for particular photo subjects. Some articles have focused on strategies, such as including key words in titles and opening paragraphs. All the articles, though, have mentioned and circled back to the importance of content. If articles aren't interesting, timely, and written well, eventually readers will drift away.

I've been connected loosely or closely with about a dozen periodical publications over the years, both print and online. For some I was a contributing writer, for some an editor, and for a few online blogs the writer and administrator. With all of those varied experiences in the regular publication of content--newspapers, literary journals, school publications, and blogs--success always circled back to good content, providing what the reader wanted to read.

Even this blog, Tom Kepler Writing, containing subject matter pretty much determined by whatever activity I'm involved with at the moment, is successful because of its content. Having written here for over ten years, I've accumulated a "backlist" of articles that still attract readers so that my monthly page views maintain a fairly good number--at least for a small, private blog. I've referred earlier to the "backlist" phenomenon in my article celebrating ten years of publishing this blog.

My more recent blog about tiny trailer camping, Green Goddess Glamping, has been more successful, I think, even though I've been posting articles for less than two years. There are two reasons to which I attribute this success. One is that I've learned a lot from my previous writing and blogging experience, especially how to structure and promote the blog. The second is that the greater focus of the blog (on tiny trailer camping) has helped me attract readers.

The articles still have to be interesting, timely, and well-written, though. I continue to write using a strategy I've read about in the past--to vary the content of the blog's articles in a rotating pattern of informative, personal, and feature stories relating to tiny trailer camping. An example of the changing content can be seen in the three links below from a year ago--or even by the titles of the articles.

Of course, it isn't always easy to maintain that cycle of content. During the winter, I'm not out camping so much. Sometimes my feature stories run thin because people are too busy to respond. And as for "how-to" articles, there are only so many times I'm willing to write an article about portable toilets. (Although, interestingly enough, my portable toilet articles are among my most viewed!)


I do try and mostly achieve a publishing schedule of two articles a week, sometimes easily done and sometimes a challenge. This self-imposed two-per-week goal has had some interesting consequences for me. One is that as a retired school teacher, it's provided a personal focus in my varied responsibilities during retirement. The publishing schedule has established a certain rigor to my writing, and I like that. I like knowing I have a deadline coming up.

Another interesting consequence of my regular posting of articles to meet my two-a-week goal is that my creativity is stimulated. Two a week is not a burden, but does create enough time pressure that I have to keep alert for story opportunities, especially in keeping with the rotation of subject content. Both the need to be creative and the stimulation of my creativity has led to unexpected articles and unexpected contact with other trailer owners and campers. For instance, I've written eight articles aggregated under the Art and Craft Activities label for Green Goddess Glamping, stories about fine artists, a blacksmith, a photographer, and a computer artist who also camp, to name a few. I've also published five articles on Camp Cooking, which include an article on campfire cooking and an article on Dutch oven cooking.

My publishing goal of two articles each week with varied subject material has increased my creativity in finding interesting subjects to write about. After that, it's my responsibility to research and write readable articles about my article topics. It's been a fun experience this last year and a half. As an added bonus, maintaining my camping blog has also re-enlivened this blog. The more writing I do, the more I have to write about writing and publishing! I believe, following my experience of the last ten years, I will eventually use the camping blog's content to produce some camping books--or perhaps manuals and travelogues would be more specific.

I also feel that my current writing, just having ideas and words flow, will eventually lead to my diving back into fiction again. I've recently written two flash fiction rough drafts. I'd like to publish a fantasy short story collection, with the stories set in the Stone Dragon universe. I feel that egg hatching. It's a good feeling, and I have to thank my blog writing for providing some continuity, some connection--thoughts in the mind, fingers on the keyboard, and something to share with my readers.

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