Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Getting Ready for the Last Roundup

Cousin Marion Shepherd ( Shep) and I thought of ourselves as experienced trail riders after our 325 mile horseback and covered wagon trip to recreate our ancestors’ migration from Ranger in Central West Texas to Delta County in Northeast Texas. Friend Charles Horchem drove his old Studebaker wagon pulled by two white mules and kept us from starving (think well-fed).

Six years later, Shep, in particular, was itching for another adventure. And, unlike the Brazos trip, he had a horse gentle-broke to ride this time. We both were excited by a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ride with genuine cowboys doing real ranch work. Ain’t no place like Texas to get that done.

Danny Pickering, a Delta County boy who was superintendent of Guthrie ISD, offered us the chance we would not otherwise have had. He knew the famous Moorhouse brothers (Tom and Bob) and said he could arrange for us to ride along on Tom’s spring roundup. 

Tom had said we could come along if we “brought our own horses and could manage to stay aboard ‘em”. He didn’t want to mess with a couple of dudes who might spoil good ranch horses or just get in the way or get hurt.

I have always been fascinated with big ranches and the cowboys that make them hum. I have read a lot about them and heck, I even have some experiences to brag about.  My fascination probably began with old Western movies but it was honed to a sharp edge when I went to high school in the Panhandle only a half mile from one of the entrances to the famous Matador Ranch. Sam Brown, (high school buddy, novelist, cowboy poet, and lifetime cowboy), worked on the Matador with his father. 

In Rivers Ebb, my third novel, some scenes take place on that ranch. As they crossed the cattle guard and entered the Matador, Jake got that been-here-before feeling again. The full moon made the narrow winding trail look like it led to the edge of the earth.

Another good friend from high school had run the Quien Sabe Ranch farther north in the Panhandle for more than twenty years and I had the privilege of riding beside him during spring roundup and branding there once.
If you have been following my previous articles, you know I also met with legendary Watt Matthews and had dinner in the cook shack at his historic  Lambshead Ranch. 

I have also visited the XIT and the YO. None of this, however, qualified me to ride the spring roundup on the Moorhouse. 

But I had also spent five years doing competitive team roping since the Brazos trip. I knew that didn’t make me a real cowboy, but I felt ready for just about any cowboy experience. And I didn’t think any horse could have been subjected to more diverse experiences than my horse Rowdy. Given the chance, I figured I could rope-and-drag-to-the-fire with real ranch cowboys. Okay, not as good as them, but I thought I could catch a few.

I never met John and Ed Moorhouse, but I had watched brothers Tom and Bob show their ranch horses in competition a few years back at the Abilene Western Heritage Classic.  Friend Larry Mitchell, now a cowboy pastor at Rimrock Cowboy Church, drove a matched pair of horses and carried dignitaries in his restored buckboard during the rodeo’s grand entry each night of the rodeo for many years. He filled me in on the Moorhouse brothers and other ranches involved in this historic and entertaining event.

During the time of our planned trip to Guthrie, Bob Moorhouse was running the Pitchfork Ranch and his brother Tom  was running the family’s Moorhouse Ranch. Both have been featured in just about every cowboy and ranching magazine known to man and Bob was also garnering national acclaim for his photography.

Tom was known for running his roundups the way they did a hundred years ago, complete with chuck wagon. The prospect of participating in such an event was right up there with heaven for a couple of wannabe cowboys like Shep and me, both born a hundred years too late. 

Shep and I felt so experienced after the Biscuits Across the Brazos trip that planning for this one seemed like a piece of cake. So we didn’t do much planning. My horse and I had taken a few months break from roping, but I spent several days getting Rowdy legged up for the trip and felt he was ready.

Unlike the Brazos trip, we did not have to worry about two mules and four horses, sixteen days of provisions for four men and the many guests who joined us. There was no wagon to transport and drive, no detailed trail to plan, no cars or trucks to bother our stock. All we had to worry about was ourselves and two horses.

Next week: Leaving for Guthrie.

Attention blog followers: Be sure and take advantage of my three for twenty offer at You can order securely there with e-check or credit card. E-mail me if you have special instructions or questions.

Also, I am on the book trail again. If your group is looking for a speaker, let me know. Have speaker kit; will travel.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

George Clooney, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, and Daddy

I did an interview Tuesday that aired on a couple of radio stations in Florida and Arkansas.
If you are interested, go to this podcast site.
You can also hear it on my website here.

Thanks to the ones who had time to write reviews for Go Down Looking. I still need more and you can post your review here .

Do things always happen for a reason?  Can we cause coincidences to happen?  Can we bring the powers of the universe into our particular lives?  Can something we did long ago cause an event (intended or unintended) today—many years later?  Instead of just wishing for a desired event or outcome, can we do something to bring it about?

Many of you know that I have two biscuits left by my father when he died more than forty years ago. They are sealed in a small malted milk jar and are now over ninety-four years old. Obviously, they had special meaning for Daddy and thus, to me.  Sunday was Fathers’ Day and that always brings back the biscuits story.

Those biscuits made a journey across Texas in 1918 in a covered wagon with Daddy and his parents and siblings. He kept them because they were made by his beloved Aunt Minnie. I carried them on a repeat journey (in a different covered wagon) in 1998.  It was symbolic, for sure. Sentimental? You bet. My way of apologizing to my father for not paying more attention to the stories he told me about what the biscuits meant to him and why he had kept them all those years.

They say that when a man dies, his library burns down. And I had let part of my daddy’s library burn down.  So I chronicled that return trip in Biscuits Across the Brazos.  The trip was more Marion Shepherd’s (my cousin) idea than mine, but we both wanted to honor our departed fathers, our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, and our heritage.

If I had know then what I know now, I would probably have put more sentiment into the little book, more of the feelings I had as I tried to bring back something that could not be seen with the physical eye. I made a stab at it in a few places, but I didn’t want to take the risk of being too sappy or causing readers to roll their eyes. After all, who cares about somebody else’s old biscuits? People have their own stories to tell.

I was wrong, of course, people do care. And not just because they have their own similar stories, but they really do care about yours. It was heartening to discover that.

 A few years after the book was released, Jan and I went to see "O'Brother Where Art Thou?"with George Clooney.  I was skeptical and not a huge fan of Clooney’s (sorry, ladies). But Clooney was brilliant in this movie. Laugh-out-loud funny, too.

Clooney plays a vainglorious fellow whose primary purpose in life is to find a ready supply of pomade for his hair. He has an inflated sense of his intelligence and is possessed of a vocabulary of words that he can’t string together in coherent sentences. Yet, he is profuse in advice for those he views as lacking in all the wonderful qualities he possesses in abundant quantities.  It’s not that the character doesn’t know anything, it’s just that most of what he knows is not true.  

As I look back on it now, I am reminded of what self-effacing Richard Farnsworth, one of my favorite actors, said about his role when he was nominated as best actor for “The Straight Story”. Richard said something like this, “It’s pretty easy to do well when you’re playing yourself.”  Now I know why Clooney was so good in his role.

 What does this have to do with coincidences? We made the trip across the Brazos in 1998. “O’ Brother” was released in 2000. When I saw the movie, I was surprised (make that shocked) by how much I enjoyed it. Yet, I could not explain exactly why.

When I bought the soundtrack, I discovered that it had a lot to do with the music. I played the CD repeatedly. I loved “Man of Constant Sorrow”, “O’ Death” and all the songs. But one song in particular almost always made the hair stand on the back of my neck and chill bumps come up on my arms. More than once, it brought unexplained tears to my eyes.

I memorized the words from hearing it so often, but there was nothing in the lyrics to explain the feelings it brought.
                  I had a friend named Ramblin’ Bob,
                  He liked to steal, gamble and rob

Not all that inspiring, and it doesn’t improve much in later verses. So I attributed my abnormal reaction to the plaintive, pure sound of the old-time instruments and the voices of the Soggy Bottom Boys.

In 2005, Jan and I went to see "Walk the Line". I boasted on the way home that I had one of (and maybe the first) Johnny Cash album, a 33 RPM vinyl record.

Eager to prove my claim when we reached home, I searched through my collection and found it. When I picked up the album, showing a young Cash in a straw farm hat, I noticed another album just beneath it—Daddy’s copy of a reproduced Jimmie Rodgers album. We had given it to Daddy for Christmas more than fifty years earlier.

 I sat in the floor and looked at the list of songs on the cover. My eyes went directly to it—“In the Jailhouse Now.” Daddy loved to hear Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, sing. Call me sentimental, but I like to think that those moist eyes, chill bumps and hair-standing episodes were Daddy saying he approved of our trip across Texas carrying his biscuits.

About four years after that, I came across a relatively obscure book (Provinces of Night) written by William Gay that led me to visit the author in Tennessee. There, I saw an old poster of Jimmie Rodgers. I seems that Gay uses Jimmie Rodgers tunes in his books and short stories. One is featured in “Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down”, later made into this movie. Gay’s author photo has him sitting in front of that Jimmie Rodgers poster.

Coincidences? I don’t think so. If you think so, come to my office sometime and let me show you a copy of a vanity poster in my office showing a reproduced 1997 magazine article.  The interviewer asked what I was reading. My answer: Goodbye to a River (a book about the Brazos)  and Flow, which later became the theme for my first novel.  Coincidences? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Homecoming, Tom T. Hall and Me

I have a weak spot (okay, several) when it comes to public speaking. I have an irrational concern that someone in the audience will have heard me before or that I will repeat phrases or thoughts and thus bore them.

Of course, any speaker repeats himself, but I almost never give the same program twice. Professional speakers much more accomplished than I long ago proved the fallacy of that, but I can’t seem to shake the irrational worry. I always search for a new way of saying something I have said before.

Fortunately, something usually comes to me from some source to allow me to make a slightly different take on the subject I have been speaking about for over a decade. That subject is books (primarily fiction)—writing and reading them.

While fishing around for something to say to Sulphur Springs Rotary Club members, I read a book review in “Writer” magazine about The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. The book was written by Johnathan Gottschall, a scientist and scholar, and the review was written by editor Chuck Leddy. When a review of the same book showed up in two days later in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News, I knew that help had arrived.

I have been trying to make the case for the value of stories and how they change our lives for many years. 
However, I had only personal experience and very little scientific evidence to back up my claims that reading and telling stories are good for us in countless ways. And that reading fiction rates right up there with non-fiction. Gottschall’s book now offers scientific proof.

I once had the unenviable job of teaching accountants how to become salesmen (that’s an oversimplification that will have to do for now). What qualified me to do that? Being an introvert (yes, I am). I have lost job opportunities because the trait showed up on the Myers-Briggs personality tests used by many corporations and universities. I didn’t change that natural inclination; I just learned how to maneuver it to my advantage.

My life’s ambition was to be a cowboy or baseball player, but God knew I was not qualified for either. I was stuck as an accountant. So I sat at the feet, read the books, and listened to the recorded messages of folks I considered some of the greatest speakers and teachers. A lot of them were salesmen.

One of the most useful but most discouraging things I was told is that people forget what they hear, remember what they see, and understand what they do

Then another trusted source told me that people remember about ten percent of what they hear, twenty percent of what they see, and eighty percent of what they do the first time. However, repetition increases those numbers exponentially. You would think that information would have conquered my fear of repetition.

So what does that have to do with stories? As I began to apply the principles I had been taught, I learned something else. Months, even years after a presentation I had made, people would repeat one of the stories I had told. They may not have remembered the facts I provided, but they remembered the stories and the stories told them how to apply what I was trying to convey.

I never imagined then that I would be spending most of my time writing stories (fiction and non-fiction). When I wrote my first books on financial planning, most of my stories were edited out. I argued against it, but Wiley and Sons simply said, “We’re a big publisher; you’re an unknown writer. Shut up.” They were right about that unknown thing, but wrong about the stories.

When they asked me to write a third book, I talked them into leaving in a few of the stories.  That book sold five times more copies than any of the previous ones. I attribute that partially to the stories.

Writing novels, however, is different. It’s a good thing I was na├»ve about the bias against fiction (and reading in general), or I might never have started a novel. Although I often kept secret my own taste for novels in the early years of my career, I never imagined the bias to be so prevalent and I certainly never imagined that so many (mostly men) did not read at all.

I went on a short research trip with three university professors shortly after I wrote my first novel. One had written a book on flora and fauna of Northeast Texas. I offered to swap books (mine for his). He said he didn’t have time for fiction.

I wanted to tell him I didn’t have much time for weeds, either, but I didn’t. I purchased a copy of his book, thinking it would shame him into buying one of mine. It didn’t. He took great pains to display his disdain for novels.

One well-known author said that his parents and his wife asked him when he started on his first novel if telling lies was really going to be his life’s work.

That wasn’t my first hint, but it was one of many that told me I had unwittingly chosen a difficult path. Not only are novels the hardest sell, but non-genre novels out of rural Texas raise the selling bar to an almost impossible height.

By the time I discovered this, I was well into my third novel, and I had a small cadre of devoted readers—enough for me to finally find a small publisher or two to take me on.

But what do we tell the stick-in-the-muds about the value in fiction?  I told one of the elitists who said he did not have time for fiction that he risked being uninformed—that today’s great biographers use stories to tell about their subjects—even dialogue.  So, how can they know what people actually said so many years ago?  Most of the time, they can’t—they have to make it up.  Is that a lie?  Or is it just a clever way of telling a true story to make it more entertaining? And what about the great novels that changed the world?  I listed a few, but no sell.

I got some support from an article written about Dallas physician and medical school professor Abraham Verghese. I consider him an unbiased source because he is not an author of fiction. The doctor said, “Good fiction can achieve a higher kind of truth than non-fiction. Good stories are instructions for living . . . a great novel transports you to another planet, lets you vicariously live a full life, and when you come back it’s still Tuesday, and yet you’ve learned the lessons of a lifetime.  That’s what everyone, doctors included, could get from fiction. …. And God is in the details . . . you can’t skim and get meaning.”

I have been saying for years that stories bind us together—stories heal. I was speaking in the spiritual sense, but James Pennebaker and a team of researchers at the University of Texas determined that writing and reading stories raises the t-cell level in the bloodstream, stabilizing the immune system. 

Tom Spanbauer says that “fiction is the lie that makes the truth truer—that facts are about a series of events, fiction is about the meaning of those events”. 

The most asked question I get about my books is now and always has been, “Is any of this true?” At the book launch for Go Down Looking in early May, I quoted a line from “I wish I Was Eighteen Again” the song that George Burns sang when he was in his eighties. I always thought the second line was “Going where I’ve already been.” Turns out, the line is, “Going Where I’ve Never Been”. Both apply to Go Down Looking, but there is much more already been then never been.  

Back to scholar and scientist Gottschall and his book. He says (based on scientific experiments), “Stories are defining parts of our everyday lives”.  So what happens when the so-called facts conflict with our memory-stories? 

Gottschall answers, “Humans have a knack for weeding out inconsistencies and putting in facts that enhance our self-made narratives. A life story is a carefully shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings.”  You have to love the term strategic forgetting.

Some of my readers who know my history and know the history of Northeast Texas barely got  past the first scene in Go Down Looking before contacting me about something they remember differently. I enjoy getting these questions and challenges. Usually, a little more reading will answer their questions. If not, I always enjoy explaining why I told the story the way I did.

Gottschall goes on, “Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to all kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species . . . Stories make societies work better.”

Remember what we talked about earlier: We forget what we hear, remember what we see, and understand what we do. Reading fiction allows us to hear, see and do. I have many friends, mostly men, who have not read a book since high school. They say they can’t stay awake or, “I’ll wait till the movie comes out.”

That’s because they only read words. They haven’t taught themselves to hear, see and do right along with the characters in books. When they learn to do this, they read faster and begin to understand the meaning of stories and begin to enjoy one of life’s greatest pleasures. 

Speaking of that, Willard Spiegelman in his Seven Pleasures (Essays on Ordinary Happiness) book, lists reading and writing as two of the seven. Listening, dancing, looking, walking, swimming, are the other five. Okay, I don’t know why he left out the one you would have chosen.  I think the answer lies in the word ordinary.  

Writing novels has given me a renewed appreciation for songwriters. They often say as much in one page as I do in three hundred.So I thought it might be fun to try this hear, see and do thing with a few words from famous songwriter, Tom T. Hall. Who doesn’t remember the year that Clayton Delaney died

In another song, “Homecoming”, Tom tells the story that covers several decades in one page, about six hundred words. And he does it with only one character speaking.

Humor me. See if you can see what Tom is telling us in the first verse, just fifty-two words, four lines.
Guess I should’ve written Dad, to let you know that I was coming home
I’ve been gone so many years, I didn’t realize you had a phone
Saw your cattle coming in, boy, they’re looking mighty fat and slick
Saw Fred at the service station, told me his wife is awful sick

What do you see in your mind’s eye with each line?
A son returns after being away for many years with no contact.
We know the approximate era because the dad did not have a phone when the son left
Daddy’s a farmer/rancher—but the bigger issue is the son making small talk to avoid speaking about the invisible barrier between them—his prolonged absence and his guilt.
Fred is probably a brother who has a sick wife. The brother has stayed behind with his father.

Do you have a vision of the father and son meeting for the first time in years? Where are they? What are they wearing? I see the father in overalls and one of those Hank Williams hats, the son in a loud western shirt with the top two or three snaps undone. The father is on the porch and the son is at the porch steps of a little farm house with a fig tree in the yard and a swing on the porch, a vine grows up a trellis.  

Do you see the cattle? What kind are they? See the old service station?

Now skip to the fourth verse.
I’m sorry I couldn’t be here with you all when Momma passed away
I was on the road, and when they came and told me, it was just too late.
I drove by the grave to see her; boy, that sure is a pretty stone
I’m glad that Fred and Jan are here, it’s better than you being here alone.

Can you see the gravestone, the little country graveyard? The anguish on the son’s face, the disappointment and grief on the father’s?  And now we know that Fred is a brother.

Now the final verse (we’re skipping several good ones).
Well, Dad, I gotta go; we got a dance to work in Cartersville tonight
Let me take your number down, and I promise you I’ll write
Now you be good and don’t be chasin’ all those pretty women that you know
And, by the way, if you see Barbara Walker, tell her that I said hello.

We’re back to the guilty small talk, the awkward departure in order to return to a life the father does not approve of. And, of course, the old flame the son left behind. See the sweetheart’s face? See the forced smile on the son’s face disappear and a deep sadness fill his eyes as he mentions his old heartthrob?

Chuck Leddy, contributing editor to “Writer” magazine concludes in his review of Gottschall’s book, “Little wonder then that we seek to share our stories with others: Our brains are hard-wired to construct and absorb stories. Our love of story is what makes us human.”  

Gottschall seals the deal with these revealing words.  “Until the day we die, we are living the story of our lives. And, like a novel in process, our life stories are always changing and evolving, being edited, rewritten, and embellished by an unreliable narrator. We are, in large part, our personal stories.”  

Now, go read. Oops. I forgot the ones who need to read this don’t read. I am preaching to the choir.  Marcel Proust called the moments of unity between writer and reader “that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” To my readers, I say thanks for that fruitful miracle. And thanks for your kind comments.
I am trying to hold up my end of this publisher/author agreement. Go Down Looking is now officially released on Amazon and I need reviews. If you read it and liked it, please go here and write a few words. You can also find it (and review it) at B&N and most other online bookstores. If you don’t own it yet, check out the special deal I am offering here.
At the risk of begging too much, I also need reviews for the e-book version of Rivers Flow. Go here. If you have already written one for the print book, feel free to repeat the same words. Remember that I am offering special deals at my website here. Many thanks.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Reflection--The Art of Looking Back

Memorial Day at Mt. Zion, 2012. 
Six years ago, I spoke here for this annual event. The subject was “There’s Something About Old Country Graveyards”. I spoke about why we return to the burial grounds of our ancestors and friends. I read a poem called “Do Not Stand."  Mary Frye wrote the poem on a paper grocery sack as a eulogy to her mother. 

Frye said on behalf of her mother, “Do not stand by my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep. I am the thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glint on snow” . . . and so forth, I won’t read the whole poem again.

I went on to talk about why we do come to stand by the graves of the ones who left before us. That the cemetery is not the only place where we can reconnect to our loved ones, but is the always place, at least the physical place.

When we visit their graves, we hear their whispers about the mistakes they made and how we can avoid them. In the sun, we feel the warm touch of their embrace. In the rain, we feel cleansed and calmed. In the snow, we see the brightness of their smiles. In the sounds of nature, the chirp of a cricket, the buzz of a locust, the song of a bird, we hear the healing stories of our time together. In the birds that fly around old country graveyards, we see our loved ones’ freedom from pain, and ourselves flying away.

Two years later, I spoke about Going Home Again. I read an unpublished story of mine about a man in the latter stage of life visiting his long-abandoned home place. I tried to make the case that churches and cemeteries are the threads that gently pull us back home. Again, I turned to an eloquent poet, T. S. Elliott, who said, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started—and to know that place for the first time.”

Today, I want to talk about Reflection, the Art of Looking back. We are often told to never look back, to always keep our eyes on the road ahead, the future. But writing novels has given me a new perspective.  I think looking back is good. A frequent backward glance (no, make that a calm deliberate, purposeful perusal) helps us to see the road ahead clearer.

Another nice thing about reflection—the oldest of us enjoy special advantages when it comes to looking back simply because we have more to think about, more to look back on. We have been seasoned by life—hopefully to a just-right result. Seasoned by pain and grief, triumph and tragedy, the potholes we did not see coming, the rivers we swam, the mountains we climbed, whether we wanted to or not. 

And yes, we have been weathered—buffeted about by winds, rain and sun, and the storms of life in general. And we have the faces to prove it. Reflection allows us to consider how the events of our past formed us, what we can learn from events that just seem to have happened to us, the problems we brought upon ourselves, and how we handled them. How we overcame adversity or allowed it to overcome us, and how that adversity usually made us stronger.

I used to avoid prolonged reflection, shooing it away when it came unbidden because it sometimes brought guilt, sadness, disappointment, even shame. As a novelist, I learned to embrace it because, well, I have to in order to write.

I count myself  fortunate because I spend days, weeks, months and years reflecting, pondering what could have been done better or differently and how that might have affected many lives.

Such reflection led me to tell Jan what I wanted on my own gravestone.
      Jim Ainsworth –Coulda Done More, Coulda Done it Better, Wish I had.

But reflection shouldn’t be a form of punishment. Sure, we should learn from our mistakes. But looking back should be about forgiveness, not just of others, but of ourselves. None of us is perfect.

So what does that have to do with this day of remembrance and memorial at Mt. Zion? This annual event is a designated time to look back. Not just at our own lives but the lives of those buried in this cemetery. Not a time to riddle ourselves with guilt, but to look back at our mistakes and the mistakes made by those who left this earthly plain before us.

It’s even more important, I think, to look back at what the ones who went before us accomplished, often in the face of great adversity. Many set the bar very high. Won’t their lives be more meaningful if we learn from them? Won’t we be better?

But many of us get so caught up in the details of flowers, food, weather and dress that we don’t pause to reflect and remember. We should take that pause. Let this day be a reminder about a practice that we should engage in throughout the year.