Ward Nicholson

Think Outside The Box masthead

Crossroads ahead: renaming blog to Hermit Spirit. Here’s what’s up.

The best kind of change might be one that surprises you.

Over the last few months, I felt changes looming that I could not quite put my finger on. At loose ends on a few different fronts, first I found myself casting about for something to write on the blog here, but nothing presented itself.

Then, after an almost chance event — reading a rather off-the-beaten-path article on a blog about spirituality and meditation, a foundation stone that had once been important to me but had gone mostly dormant for many years — I realized it was time, I wanted, needed, to refocus my approach to life. I felt moved to revive and take up something again from the past that had fallen away, and once again move forward with it.

It was an impulse I had pushed down amid the incessant demands to make ends meet in today’s ever-onrushing world. Not always voluntarily, but something I had felt was necessary and had gotten used to, and perhaps even thought was a sign of the no-nonsense pragmatism needed to get along in life. Only now that approach was no longer working for me, as it had for such a long time. Now the impulse was returning, and it had not taken that much of a tripwire to do it.

In the past I had done some sitting meditation practice from time to time, but now, juggling more responsibilities and activities than I would prefer despite my attempts to place limits (the story of modern life, right?), I decided to try combining meditation with my evening walks.

Though I had been running several mornings a week, by the time evening rolled around, my body was often in need of some additional physical exertion, if light, to relax from the rigors or stresses of the day. So, I would go out for a leisurely walk around the neighborhood alone to unwind. Otherwise I could not always sleep well.

And… not initially too hopeful at first, I found the new approach to meditation worked. It wasn’t long before I began feeling more in tune with myself spiritually again, and was able to then pick up the inquiry I had left off with years before.

Then, with this rekindled spirit of inquiry in meditation, my intense focus on running began to shift. I still enjoyed running, and not only for it’s own sake, because it has proven essential for my overall health as well. But I found my competitive ambitions waning. While continuing to take a well-rounded approach to training including long runs, tempos, intervals, and strides, nevertheless I cut back from four days a week to three and backed off the intensity a bit to open up more space and energy for other things in my life.

Not just time for more relaxation and contemplation either. Because finances had recently become tight once again, I also needed to put more energy into shoring up my income. This time, however, I did not want to let that supplant the time for meditation and reflection that my soul was now asking for.

Two websites to be rebuilt, one aging, one already on the road to incompatibility

Tangentially related to the above shift were the twin projects of getting my two websites rebuilt — WardNicholson.com here, as well as LeewardPro.com, my custom car tags business, which contributes a good deal of my income. The reasons why each needed rebuilding differed, but I had put off the tasks as long as I could, and matters were becoming more pressing.

With WardNicholson.com, it was more or less a case of simple bad luck. The company behind the WordPress theme framework I had built it on, Headway Themes, began dying an ignoble death less than a year after I had first gotten the site built in 2015 — though the company’s imminent demise was not something I was aware of yet. I had researched the market as carefully as I could prior to choosing Headway as the foundation for the site, hopefully also to be used for converting LeewardPro.com to the WordPress platform later on as well.

Despite that effort, though, it turned out Headway ran aground on the shoals of both competition and the relentless evolution of the WordPress software market, as well as mistargeted marketing efforts on Headway’s part.

Making matters worse was, disgracefully, unethical behavior and business practice on the part of the two company principals, a father-and-son team who continued leading users down the primrose path about their intentions, even while checking out of the business behind the scenes.

Emotionally complicating the stink that arose was that the still-young, early-twenty-something son, the developer and coder behind the product, was considered a genius by all concerned. This viewpoint seemed to be universally shared by the small support team, business partners who were fellow WordPress developers, and a significant number of users, despite these same individuals having been stiffed financially by the company, and who detested the evasions, misleading statements, and stonewalling by Headway while it continued to advertise and take money for a product it no longer developed or supported.

The father was another matter, a former lawyer who turned out to have been disbarred for not-too-dissimilar behavior as an attorney in private practice some years before. One can only imagine the undue influence he might have had on the son, and the private cautionary tale behind the public unfolding of events. Hopefully, the son will eventually learn something from the fiasco — because the father, now a “repeat offender,” so to speak, so far doesn’t seem to have.

At any rate, WardNicholson.com here launched in late 2015, but by mid-2016 Headway Themes was foundering, which I found out about only several months after the fact. It was a given, however, that with Headway going under, it was only a matter of time before the theme framework — dead in the water without the prospect of future updates — would eventually become either incompatible with the overall WordPress ecosystem or vulnerable to security hacks. At the time, however, I could not make a decision about which WordPress theme or theme framework I wanted to move the website to. None of them lit my fire especially, or seemed appropriate to my needs.

I had initially thought that that theme might be one named Make Plus, by The Theme Foundry, which I purchased and employed when taking a first run at prototyping my FontCompass website idea/project in early 2017. However, after a few months of intense work, I became disillusioned with Make, tabling the FontCompass project for the time being in frustration.

And then I sat on things on all fronts for months, slowly stewing and mulling over what to do, not feeling moved to act, because no particularly elegant or even halfway-suitable resolution presented itself, at least to my way of thinking and working.

The unanticipated trigger for Hermit Spirit

The trigger that finally set things in motion, though, was the approaching expiration and renewal deadline this month for my web hosting account for WardNicholson.com with SiteGround. I liked, and still like, SiteGround, and their technical support response times are fantastic. But the fly in the ointment for me with them — with most web hosts, as far as that goes — is that even though SiteGround offers built-in security protection at the server level, and highly touts it, they will not clean up your site if a hack occurs.

So I had ended up going with a separate package for that from Sucuri, the best security firm in the industry. They do clean up after any hack attack that might somehow manage to get through. I well knew the value of this, having had the site hacked once prior to going with Sucuri, which they cleaned up for me when I initially signed up with them. Also, the site was hacked another time, later, even despite Sucuri, which they quickly and professionally cleaned up as well.

(WordPress sites are somewhat vulnerable to hacks by nature because of the open plugin architecture. Even if you do keep all your plugins updated as everyone recommends, sometimes a given update will inadvertently open a security hole, or a given plugin developer might not be as keenly attuned to security in their coding practices as they should be.)

But getting all the handshaking operations set up to work properly with Sucuri’s CloudProxy firewall was more technical than I would have liked, and could cause problems locking out SiteGround’s support techs whenever I needed to file a support request with them. A few things I wasn’t able to figure out how to do properly myself and had to call in Sucuri’s support techs to either fix what I had screwed up, or just do it right from the get-go.

I wanted to somehow simplify the web hosting experience, while retaining roughly the same overall cost outlay. So when the SiteGround account came up for renewal, I started investigating web hosts again. And I happened to find out that Flywheel — which also offers its own security solution at the server level — will clean up after any hack attack that infects your site.

Plus, with Flywheel all of it happens behind the scenes: one doesn’t have to know anything about all the “gauges and dials,” so to speak, I had needed to be aware of with Sucuri’s dashboard. The overall price per month was not all that much more than the previous cost of SiteGround for hosting plus Sucuri for security I had been paying. Moving to Flywheel would therefore consolidate and simplify things. An easy win for me.

To boot, Flywheel specializes solely in WordPress hosting. They recognize that most people using WordPress who are designers don’t want to have to also be coders or web admins. They have a drop-dead-simple dashboard that’s five times less complicated than what you typically encounter with most hosts, such as the ubiquitous cPanel interface. So I decided to move the site over to Flywheel, and already, just weeks after moving to them, the experience has been a relief.

A potential bugaboo, however, was that the Headway theme framework on which WardNicholson.com had been built was developed to run with an older version of PHP than what Flywheel deployed — and that by policy they would not revert for you to an earlier version — with no guarantee of compatibility with the more recent one.

In fact, prior to moving to Flywheel, I had been getting automated warnings from SiteGround’s server that Headway was not completely compatible if I were to upgrade to a more recent version of PHP, and could potentially produce fatal errors if I did. Fortunately, so far WardNicholson.com has worked fine on Flywheel after the move about three weeks ago. But it’s living on borrowed time, and the handwriting has been on the wall that I need to migrate to a new theme, and relatively soon. Which finally motivated me to get a move on, and decide on a new theme to rebuild the site with.

The holy grail for WordPress site building finally arrives

Now that I was finally looking into the WordPress theme market again following the move to Flywheel, I discovered the landscape had changed. It was a good thing I had waited and not moved earlier. Too much had been in flux, and only recently had workable market solutions begun to gel, at least for the way I like to work.

There were now three WordPress themes targeted at graphic designers but-only-sort-of-web-developers like myself that had risen to the top of the market: GeneratePress, Astra, and OceanWP. Though they provided an environment containing features aimed at more custom development than other comparable themes, they were still relatively simple to use (and here, too, I wanted more simplicity in my life). Yet they offered enough flexibility that while not technically true theme-building frameworks, you could customize the themes enough that it could take you a long way.

What I really wanted, though — the holy grail that the worldwide legion of all graphic designers wanted — was to be able to change the design of any part of a WordPress theme to my liking. And simply, without having to get into a morass of spaghetti coding that traditionally would have been required under the hood getting your hands dirty with PHP, which is where I personally drew the line. (Not unlike many other designers, frankly.)

Yes, there were ways to design your own theme like I had done before with Headway Themes, but the truth was that it was still too difficult and code-intensive for my taste. Not impossibly difficult by any means, but far more time-consuming and aggravating than it should be for graphic designers who just want to create, visually and typographically, not code.

Now that desire had finally, actually become possible. Except I did not know that just yet, because I had not paid attention to the market since abandoning Make Plus the year before — the air having gone out of my tires, while I channeled my energies elsewhere for a time.

But what put things over the top in the marketplace was that two page-building tools, Beaver Builder and Elementor, either now offered (in the case of Beaver Builder’s Beaver Themer) or were about to offer (with Elementor 2.0), the promise of true theming tools.

This means not only being able to design the main content area of static, standalone pages in your WordPress site that such page builders had first enabled, but templating and theming an entire site. Meaning the header and the footer and the non-static, dynamically built loop of blog posts, and also templated e-commerce product pages that are loaded on-the-fly from a product database each time a user clicks, serving up the latest up-to-date pricing and info… everything.

Changing the game: Beaver Builder and Elementor

The upshot now is that the theme you choose no longer need attempt to “offer it all.” It’s more important that it provide a solid foundation for custom design, a way of working that meshes with your own approach, and a committed development team that thinks like you do, and whose overall design or software development vision and pricing model matches your own needs. Once you settle on that, you can then pair your theme of choice with either Beaver Themer or Elementor to truly make the theme yours and express every last bit of your personal design vision.

Beaver Builder came out with their Beaver Themer module last year, and Elementor with their Theme Builder in early 2018, literally just a few weeks ago. I had tried Beaver Builder in early 2017 prior to the introduction of Beaver Themer, when first experimenting with how I might put together the FontCompass site. However, I had not been happy with it. (What I had seen of Elementor at the time led me to believe it would be more my cup of tea, but it did not have theming capabilities or even a public roadmap for them at the time, while Beaver Builder had announced at least the latter.)

The inconsistent mal-alignment of various text and graphic blocks with each other in the base-level Beaver Builder theme that I ran into, and trying to correct or compensate for such issues that would pop up every time I turned around drove me crazy. And this was something that should simply have been automatic, a given with any theme, in my book. It seemed at every turn I was fighting this, which left me wondering how other designers or reviewers could overlook this or not say anything about it.

This head-scratcher with Beaver Builder was why I decided on Make Plus at the time, because it nailed the alignment issues (without which a site looks slapped together rather than professional, if you don’t wade in and fix things). Yet Make Plus eventually drove me crazy as well: A cramped content-editing window for each section of its page-builder pages that you designed; settings that might not stick the first time; box-adjustment handles that might disappear until you reloaded the page again; and even an update that invalidated painstaking page layout parameters I had previously put in place, despite employing a child theme of the Make Plus parent. (A WordPress practice expressly recommended so that updates to a theme won’t clobber your own design changes — exactly what happened here anyway.)

And by the way, the WordPress maven Chris Lema (who I am not knocking) had recommended both the Beaver Builder and Make Plus page builders at one time or another, not to mention Headway, which was a big reason I gave them a try. And which just goes to show you cannot always depend on experts, who do not know your needs or what’s important to you, and who may overlook certain product deficiencies or characteristics that aren’t that important to them but are to you.

Trialing the GeneratePress Premium and Astra Pro themes head to head

This time around I took what I was hearing — the potentially biased product reviews and so forth — with a much bigger grain of salt. Astra, GeneratePress, and OceanWP were the three biggies, though the latter I nixed up-front for reasons I won’t go into here. (And there actually were only two or three in-depth knowledgeable reviews to begin with on any of them, for one thing.) I tried the other two head to head for a few long, intense days of attempting to prototype the masthead and overall design for what was to be the newly retitled “Hermit Spirit” blog.

The scuttlebutt was that Astra had a somewhat wider array of features, and a development team more open to user input in expanding the feature set, while GeneratePress was said to be cleaner and tighter, with a more solid foundation under the hood. I had first heard of GeneratePress the year before, when reading forum comments from former Headway users now looking around for a replacement. Even so, at this juncture I was initially leaning toward Astra based on the strength of one particularly favorable review. But it turned out my experience was that after trialing them both, for my own needs there was no question: GeneratePress.

At this point, GeneratePress Premium is a 2.0 product, and while Astra Pro is the new up-and-coming kid on the block. It’s still a 1.x application, and to me it sure felt like it. I don’t have anything against developers based in India, like those behind Astra, but I encountered several bugs or perhaps feature deficiencies, and a user interface rough around the edges. Most tellingly, though, was the poor graphic design of the built-in default Astra theme.

The base, underlying theme design didn’t show a lot of care or thoughtfulness, in my opinion. For example, the main content area body text by default went all the way to the viewport edges with no margin or padding. Sure, you can easily fix that by using Astra’s WordPress Customizer settings to change the value to your liking. But when I see lack of attention to things as basic as that, it bothers me about a potential lack of consideration to other things I can’t see “under the hood.” And there were some additional examples of things that didn’t show good typographical or layout sense as well.

In its marketing, Astra sucks you in with great demos and a wide array of starter sites, but it appears to me at this time the company is overstretched or growing too fast, focusing on adding extra features while neglecting to make sure the basics are rock-solid.

By contrast, GeneratePress felt super-solid and stable, and so far I have encountered only one minor bug. The underlying base theme, though very simple like any default theme meant for further elaboration by designers or developers utilizing it, showed a good degree of thoughtfulness throughout, even if I didn’t agree with every design decision. I was able to do everything I needed or wanted to do, for the most part, without hitches. Everything “just worked.” I decided to put my stake in the ground on its side.

Plus, the developer behind GeneratePress is based here in North America, in Vancouver. Isn’t it about time we supported people in our own part of the world? Rather than running our own economy further into the ground by caring little if something comes from the opposite side of the planet and sending our money there? Or buying so much of everything we do either on low-cost criteria or glitz or the sheer huff of being the “new, new thing”? Rather than voting with our dollars for something that has proven itself and works solidly and smoothly, with evidence of what has gone into things underneath?

Once I decided on GeneratePress and then started checking into where Elementor was at in its evolution, I learned they had just recently come out with Theme Builder to challenge Beaver Themer. And I liked what I was seeing in previews of its approach to theming. This got me enthused again to finally jump in and get to work in earnest rebuilding the site here on a new foundation I could be happy with, and to get cracking.

What’s finished on the new site, what’s still left

At the moment, the “Think Outside the Box” version of the site has been moved over to Flywheel and is functioning well. The in-process “Hermit Spirit” site version is under development on a staging server at Flywheel, and I hope to have things ready, or at least ready enough, to launch within the next couple of months or so.

Famous last words when it comes to software-dependent projects, though, eh? This is a spare-time project, and with life the way it is these days, you can never tell when some unanticipated wave might come along to capsize your little boat for a while.

So far, I have designed the new Hermit Spirit masthead for the blog, and worked my way through porting over a good deal of the CSS (cascading style sheets) from the previous Headway Themes version of the site that governs the typography for the main content area, nav menus, and the sidebar and footer. (A very tedious process, but it nonetheless has been much easier targeting the right CSS selectors in GeneratePress’s code to hook up with the styles than it was with Headway, which could be labyrinthine.)

The next step, now that I have the blog mostly redesigned, will be testing out Elementor for theming the “Work” pages on the site and creating a series of mastheads for each of those pages: for Leeward Productions, Proofreading, Picture-Hanger Guy, FontCompass, and the Reverie music playlists.

Assuming Elementor proves out to my satisfaction, after WardNicholson.com is rebuilt I’ll then turn my attention to rebuilding LeewardPro.com. Traffic there has been very gradually dwindling over the years, due in part to the aging, old-school-HTML design.

But also, the art and practice of SEO (search engine optimization) has gone way beyond the level it was at when I first launched LeewardPro.com. Once it’s been redesigned and brought up to date, I’m hoping to locate a non-scummy, non-scammy, reasonable SEO practitioner I can work with to try and get more traffic coming in once again. One who’s not a rip-off artist (if such a thing exists in the landmine-ridden field of work that is SEO) or unethical, underhanded “black hat” practitioner who might cause one’s site to receive a ban from Google for one’s trouble.

Enough about the software side of things, though. Why was it, exactly, I decided to change direction with the blog portion of the site and rename it to “Hermit Spirit”?

A would-be hermit, perhaps, but a hermit in spirit

T he truth is that I have always been something of a hermit — or at least a would-be hermit. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized how central this has really been all along to so many things about the way I live.

Of course, in today’s world, here in modern America at least, it’s almost impossible to be a true hermit, unless perhaps you do what Christopher Knight did. Modern life doesn’t really permit it without getting pretty extreme and dropping out in some way. Say, for instance, becoming a full-time RVer or stealth van-dweller, or you decide you want to try going back to the land, or become an agoraphobic or shut-in, something like that.

It’s in part for this reason I decided on the name “Hermit Spirit” and not simply “Hermit.” The latter was my first inclination, because it’s simpler and also draws more of a stark, potentially controversial line in the sand. However, since I’m not a true hermit, and almost nobody really is or can be these days except for a few living in small, time-warped eddies in various backwaters of the planet, “Hermit Spirit” fits the facts better.

So… I am in spirit a hermit. Very much so. My personality tends to be that of a hermit. While I am basically friendly, albeit cranky when my peace and quiet and space are violated, I keep to myself when I can. Not as much as would be the case in a less hectic society, but it’s a strong drive. Obviously I go to the grocery store to get food, where there are people to deal with, and have to shop for other things like anyone else, though I minimize it to the utmost. I highly value solitude.

And true, I am in a long-term relationship I love and cherish, but other than that and a very few close friends, I mostly keep my own company when I’m not on the job. Most of what I do for fun I do alone. I am self-employed to the degree I can be, and in most cases find it hard or unpleasant working with other people due to the almost inevitable peer pressure encountered in work team environments, which I don’t tolerate well. Especially the peer pressure to “be social” off-the-clock. Which basically works out that to be “a good employee” you have to spend extra hours away from home, with people who may be decent but whom you probably wouldn’t associate otherwise, at no additional pay.

Except with my wife and the very close friends of my choosing, I mostly don’t want or like to socialize much. Having said that, “going out” for a movie or dinner or lunch with friends is something I do enjoy from time to time, but it becomes oppressive beyond a certain modest amount.

I don’t watch TV, except an hour or two a week with my wife sometimes. Rarely do I listen to the news even on the radio while out in the car, disliking the insulting-to-one’s-intelligence approach and the almost complete dearth of topics about what is truly important in life. Instead, the little chunks of car time on errands become added meditation or contemplative time. I figure I will hear what I need to know about the larger world through the blog sources I follow or from my wife or close friends if something truly momentous happens in the wider culture.

The shift

All that said, why the shift in direction with the blog in the first place, though? This is where things get interesting: I don’t quite know for sure how it happened exactly. It was a bit mysterious. For some reason, a few weeks after I had begun taking my evening walks-as-meditation, the motivation to do so just appeared one day. I believe the walks had something to do with it. However, it also took the trigger of arriving at the decision it was time to start getting the website ported over to Flywheel from SiteGround. With both these two things as “preconditions,” it just sort of popped up out of the blue. And here it now is.

Then, as soon as I started considering the idea, things began to flow. How to redesign the blog, and ideas for blog posts. I may be broaching the topic of spirituality on the blog as well, now that I’m reestablishing a meditation and contemplative practice again. Which also fits well with the title of “Hermit Spirit.”

Another potential change I’m mulling over is writing much shorter posts, but more frequently. I can’t guarantee anything on that front (you don’t say!), but it would be an interesting writing challenge for someone like me who gets on a roll when putting thoughts down that then begin spreading their tentacles and morphing all over the place. It could also be an avenue for growth in distilling ideas or observations down to more pithy reflections, short-and-sweet anecdotes, or slice-of-life sketches. Perhaps like the dream write-ups I’ve done on the blog helped expand my writing repertoire a bit.

The kinds of topic ideas that follow and flow from within the fabric of the Hermit Spirit outlook, I think, should be of more meaning to more people. Probably many introverts can relate, and may secretly be semi-hermits as well. Also, unlike the Think Outside the Box meme, which often (at least to my mind) requires setting the stage with more backstory to uncover the underlying assumptions that govern status-quo thinking, before then exploring the topic beyond those confines, it will be easier to jump right into something and keep the word count per post within tighter limits.

I’ll go into things more as they develop, especially once the new, updated version of the blog has launched. Right now, though, I still have a lot of CSS and design work to do to get the site launched. Especially the upcoming task of diving into Elementor for the first time to see how I like its approach in fleshing out the other, non-blog portions of the site, and to see how easily it meshes with the way I work.

It was time for another shift. And as often happens, one where I didn’t know what the change might be until after it had already come along.

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