Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Visit with a Remarkable Woman

Last week left us with a telephone order from Gela for all my books as a present for her mother’s ninety-fifth birthday. I signed all the books and left with a sense of urgency, not the least bit bothered that I was going to meet strangers dressed in jeans about to tear at the knee and a faded t-shirt. 

I don’t know what I was expecting. I just knew that I was looking forward to it. And that’s not like me at all.

I felt an unnatural “pull” to meet Kathleen (the mom) as I drove, uncharacteristically looking forward to meeting strangers. I was brought up not to impose, so I usually am hesitant about entering strange homes. But I felt this family’s welcome long before I got out of my car.

Gela had told me that the house was more than a century old and the place had once been a dairy farm. I saw tender loving care burnished with years of weather on the porch. The house had painted siding that had faded with time. It was very dissimilar to the old farmhouse I grew up in, but somehow familiar.

Kathleen, her daughter Gela and granddaughter Jody, were waiting as I entered the small living room that doubled as a bedroom. I felt the familiar unsteadiness of the floor and heard bottles rattle on a nearby dresser with my steps. I suspect that the house is supported by bois d’arc stumps, just as ours was.

But the home did not have the musty smell that some older houses have. It smelled of warm food and hospitality—a fragrance that cannot be defined, just experienced.

I did not know what they had told Kathleen about my visit. Was it a surprise?  Did she know I was bringing books? And why had she wanted my books? Had she read one before? And why had I not asked those questions on the phone?

Gela introduced me to her mother and daughter. Kathleen stood and walked toward me with the energy and grace of a much younger woman, both eyes twinkling.  She took both of my elbows, told me how wonderful it was to get to meet me. I hugged this lovely lady I had never seen before, feeling as if I was getting a long-wished-for last hug from my mother, gone more than a decade now. 

It’s a worn-out phrase and a cop-out for a writer to say this, but words cannot describe the feeling she gave me. I wondered if she had confused me with someone else, possibly a long-lost son or nephew. No. We connected at that first moment on some higher plane. She seemed much younger than her years and her face was full of youthful joy, curiosity, and love.

Looking back, it seems as if we were all talking at once, recounting the sequence of events that had led me to their doorstep, but Kathleen’s eyes seemed never to leave mine.  I told Jan later that it was one of the warmest feelings I had ever felt and one of the most astonishing encounters I had ever experienced.

Nobody ever fully explained how it was that Kathleen cut out that tiny notice of my book signing. I never even saw it in the paper. We speculated that she had read one of my first books and wanted to read the new one. Even she was unsure why she wanted to come to the book signing, meet me and read my books.

At her advanced age, she remains an avid reader, though her hearing is almost completely gone. Jody feverishly wrote on a whiteboard so that we could communicate, but I prattled on, absolutely positive that Kathleen understood everything I was saying. I know that sounds irrational, but I seemed not in control of the situation.  Kathleen was in charge.

I have had more than a week to think about this visit as I write this. I have examined and re-examined it. I have asked myself if I am I “making too much” of a pleasant encounter. Am I being overly sentimental? Was I just caught up in a vulnerable moment and susceptible to suggestion? Maybe, but I don’t think so. 

I do regret that I may have gushed as I talked to these three ladies, spilling out my life history because it seemed to parallel much of their own and because they were all so easy to talk to.

Through it all, Kathleen looked deeply into my eyes with rapt attention. More than that, I felt her communicating with me on another level. She asked Jody to go into another room and bring in a small container of books she had left on a table. Kathleen pulled a book from the box and showed it to me. 

I was taken aback when I saw the title. The Bootlegger's Other Daughter by Mary Cimarolli.

Mary and I are friends and colleagues and she had just ordered a copy of my most recent book, Go Down Looking, two days before. Kathleen did not know this. 

She pulled a second book from the box—The Glass House by William Thompson. Bill Thompson and I have been good friends for many years. My old publishing company published this book. I turned to the acknowledgements page in the book and showed Kathleen my name. She had not known.

Trying to figure out where we had met before, she asked me if I had ever been to Shady Grove Church. I had not, but told her that I had recently spoken at Mt. Zion and at Gafford Chapel. She asked if I knew Roy Lee Dittmar, the pastor at Mt. Zion. I have known Roy Lee for almost forty years.

There’s a knock at the door. Roy Lee Dittmar enters. 

Roy Lee cooks desserts for good causes and for his congregation. He was on his way to Greenville to deliver one of his cakes (or pies) to wife Jan’s twin sister, Joan. He later told Joan about seeing me at Kathleen’s house. He also told her that Kathleen was one of the most learned biblical scholars he had ever known, that she has an extensive library of religious books. 

Pastor Roy Lee knows a lot of religious scholars, has preached and been preached to by some of the best and brightest, so that is a high compliment.  

Some of you skeptics (I used to be among you) are probably saying that this is just a group of coincidences. Maybe, but I cannot escape one thing—the warm feeling that I had when this lovely lady took me into her arms and looked into my eyes.
When I rose to leave, she walked me to the door and grabbed both of my arms and squeezed them. “Now you go on home and get to writing.”

Tell me that’s not a sign.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Nudge, A Whisper, A Sign

An early review on Amazon for Go Down Looking, now available for your Kindles and Nooks.  Download cards are also available on my website.
“The Rivers Series of books are some of the best pieces of Texas fiction I've read since Elmer Kelton died.” George Aubrey.

One of my favorite quotes is “The unexamined life is not worth living”, usually attributed to Socrates. I probably read that in some assignment in college or even high school. As a youth, I likely found it sort of depressing and fatalistic.

Years later, I rediscovered the quote and found it comforting. Why? Because I have had a tendency most of my adult life to question the direction of my life. I thought of this as a weakness, a symptom of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and indecisiveness.

I think most of us start looking at where we have been and where we are going at midlife if not sooner. That examination can be brought about by unhappiness or discontent with the direction our lives are taking, or just our first recognition that we really are mortal. One of my earliest deep self-examinations led to a risky job change and a move.

I thought the move and job change would fix things and this examination thing would be done. It was not to be. Examinations, I think, will be with me until the end of my days. They have led me toward major changes in my life many times.

Through the voice of an older Jake Rivers in Go Down Looking, I tried to explain. It didn’t come with thunder and lightning or as an immediate epiphany. It took hard work, lots of mentoring, lots of reading, lots of listening, and a lot of blind alleys, disappointments and confusion. Mostly it took commitment. Lights finally began to come on. And I knew I was being guided.

Several people who read the book have asked me “how” Jake was being guided.  I will be writing more about that in future articles. For now, I want to relate how one of my recent examinations led to a specific event.

Writing novels is not easy, but can be very fulfilling. Getting folks to buy and read novels is much more difficult. Trial and error has me convinced that nobody really knows how an unknown author markets mainstream or family saga fiction. There are many books and articles on how to market non-fiction, but I have never seen any proven methods for marketing fiction (at least the type that I write).

For example, I love signings at launch parties, book clubs, and at almost all other venues, but bookstores are another matter. I am grateful when a bookstore hosts me, but the process can be grueling and is usually disappointing. One source says that the average number of books sold at such events is six—another says fifteen (yes, that includes best-sellers). And the paperwork is atrocious.

At a recent bookstore signing, I was assaulted for hours with nerve-wracking sounds that I assume might have been music. However, I did sell a few books and was grateful when friends came some distance to connect and pick up a few copies of my books.

The paperwork, loading and unloading, and a day spent watching people shop for videos rather than books, however, can bring questions to one’s mind. Like, “What the heck am I doing and why am I doing it?”
This wasn’t the first time I had asked myself this, but the event sort of brought the question front and center again. 

Trying to answer the question was anything but illuminating and invigorating. Was it time to hang it up and make another change?  Writing has been fun and rewarding, but maybe it has run its course.

On the other hand, I have told a lot of stories that I thought needed to be told and many readers have connected their lives to those of the Rivers. I have made hundreds of connections and good friends with readers all over Texas and in many other states as a result of writing the novels.

Still, maybe I am done, finished. There is a certain virtue in knowing when it is time to move on to something else. But could I do this without thinking of it as giving up?

I did learn something from those previous live examinations. I learned to ask for help. This time, I was bold enough to ask God to send a sign—maybe whisper in my ear—give me a nudge in the right direction. Some would say that is both a brash and a weak request and shows a lack of faith. Maybe, but I believe my request was answered.

The Monday morning after the less than stellar signing experience, I used my riding time on my horse Shooter for contemplation and requests for guidance on my next move. When I passed wife Jan's quilt house, she had a message for me. She said the caller was one of the most pleasant strangers she had ever spoken to.

The lady who called said that her mother was approaching her 95thbirthday. Her mom had kept a notice of my book signing event in her eyeglass case in the hope that someone would take her. Family emergencies prevented that, however. 

I returned the call at once. Gela, the lady Jan had spoken to, told me about her mother’s request and asked about getting all six of my books for her mom’s birthday. Gela offered to pick up the books, but I wanted to deliver them.

Let me correct that. I felt the need to deliver them. Gela said she would fix me a sandwich if I came to her mother’s home. It’s not all that unusual for me to deliver books, especially to the homebound, but I felt a definite need to meet Kathleen at ninety-five. I could not explain, even to myself, how much I was looking forward to it. I was not to be disappointed.I will explain why next week.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Susan Cain's Quiet

In an article a few weeks back, I made mention of the fact that I am an introvert. When I was a boy, adults consistently referred to me as quiet and shy. I don’t remember the description bothering me that much. I could hold my own with my peer group, but school was painful. I used to sneak off or play hooky at every opportunity because I hated it. I had this neat little trick where I would let my brother and sister board the bus, then I would step off and run for home at the last minute.

Of course, in those days, “Children should be seen and not heard” was popular. It fit me. I do think it was important that my parents never made a big deal of my shyness or implied in any way that it was a handicap.

The pesky introvert label came up later when I took tests as part of job applications. Taking the Meyers-Brigg personality test kept me from getting at least one job.  That bothered me because I knew I could handle the position. I mentioned that test in that earlier posting.

This book, which mentions the Meyers-Brigg several times, was reviewed in the Dallas Morning News. A day or two later, I saw it again in a magazine. Then I saw a short television interview with the author. I mentioned it to Suzanne Morris, a fellow author, who then sent me a review from the New York Times. Author Susan Cain either has a great publicist or I was getting a message to read this book.

I think I wish I had read it years ago, but on the other hand, I might have benefited more by finding out a lot of things on my own as I worked to manage my tendencies.  There is a short test in the book to let you know more about yourself.

Here are a few things I suspected and the book confirms about introverts.:

Most hate small talk, but enjoy deep discussions:

Not all introverts are shy. (The book mentions T. S. Elliot and his poem “The Waste Land”, which I  have quoted from on numerous occasions). Seems Elliot was shy and an introvert.
John Quincy Adams is considered one of the few introverted presidents. 

Harvard Law and Harvard Business place high value on extroverts. This would be fine if more                talking were correlated with greater insight, but research suggests there is no such link.

Venture capitalists are often frustrated when young entrepreneurs fail to distinguish good                presentation skills from true leadership ability.

Management theorist Jim Collins’s research shows that every single one of the highest performing companies in a major study were headed by unassuming men. They were described as quiet, modest, shy, etc . . .

Though introverts are more likely to fear public speaking than extroverts, many are quite good at it.

Introverts dream vividly and often recall their dreams the next day.

They feel exceptionally strong emotions—sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow,                melancholy, and fear.

They have unusually strong consciences.

Introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work or the people they love.

That often touted management myth of the seventies and eighties of multi-tasking?  Turns out the brain is incapable of doing two things well at the same time. We need focus, which increases efficiency by up to 50 percent.

Author Susan Cain also mentions author Marcel Proust and “the nerd soul of Apple”, Steve Wozniak. Most know about Steve Jobs, but not Wozniak, the co-founder. Wozniak worked alone and says he acquired patience, the ability that helped him most in his career.

Warren Buffett is a self-described introvert, and Cain lets that stand, but it has been my observation that Charlie Munger, his partner, was the introvert who always had Buffett’s back. Buffett loves the spotlight. He played the ukulele and showboated at shareholder meetings and with the current U. S. president while Munger quietly picked stocks. 

Cain’s exploration of the inner workings of a Tony Robbins seminar and the reactions of an introvert to this charismatic classic extrovert is fascinating and humorous.  Tony was in the news recently when several people burned themselves making his famous “hot coals” walk.I have been an observer at one of the hot walk conferences.

Cain also quotes Milaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. As many of you know, this inspired a theme for my first novel. He did a study of ninety-one exceptionally creative people and determined that most of them were shy teens.

Cain also gets into the process of deliberate practice, a concept introduced to me many years ago. It is the key to exceptional achievement and it is best done alone.

My review of the book seems to make the case that introverts are superior. The book does not do that. But it does offer explanation and encouragement to those introverts who see their traits as disadvantages. Extroverts have a perceptual head start, but in reality, introverts can catch up.

Introverts should not read this looking for excuses for behavior and traits they have previously considered handicaps or traits that may have held them back in their personal relationships and careers. Instead, read it for possible explanations of why we do some of the things we do and why some introvert traits are assets, not liabilities. We can also see ways to overcome those attributes that might hold us back. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Art of Racing in the Rain

This book by Garth Stein was recommended to me my long time friend John Ray. Otherwise, neither the title nor a synopsis would have interested me. I am glad that John loaned me his copy, because this book is one of the best I have read in a very long time.

John is a racing official and could always recite chapter and verse of just about every car made. I, on the other hand, view cars as transportation. As for racing, well, I just don’t know enough about it to get excited about watching cars go around the track at high speeds. I think I will enjoy it a lot more after reading this book.

But make no mistake, you don’t have to be a race fan to read this book.  I must also mention, though I hesitate, that a dog is the protagonist and he writes the book. Get over it. It works. When I finished, I was convinced that only a dog could have told this story so well.

Ever look into the eyes of a dog and see an old soul? Enzois an old soul.  Telling this story from a dog’s viewpoint is humorous at times, but that is not what makes it a great book. The author brilliantly uses the dog to put a mirror onto human behavior.  We get to see our actions through an old soul’s eyes and mind.

I had never thought of it this way before, but a dog can say things (no, he is not a talking dog; we get to hear his thoughts) that seem profound that might sound sanctimonious or opinionated when spouted by a human.
For example, Enzo posits, “I don’t understand why people insist on pitting the concepts of evolution and creation against each other. Why can’t they see that spiritualism and science are one?”  

Some would want to argue with a human about that, but not a dog who doesn’t really seem to have a “dog in the fight”.  He’s just an astute observer of the human (and the dog) condition.

I have read about an animal’s ability to sense illness in a human and Enzo can smell it.

I also really related to this book because Enzo comes right out and faces head-on some of the principles of "the flow" that I tiptoed around in five novels. In many cases, I used sports as a means of relaying a life concept that I have come to believe. This book uses racing in the same way. 

Enzo has learned from Denny (owner or master just doesn’t work when describing the relationship between Enzo and Denny) this principle as it applies to racing (and of course, to life).  “Such a simple concept, yet so true: that which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.”

In other words, the source of almost of all of our problems can be found by looking in the mirror. We might question that theory if we heard it in a seminar or read it in a self-help book, but when Enzo says it, you somehow believe it. If a dog can figure this out, why can’t we?

Enzo recognizes his limitations as a dog in a human world. He has just the proper amount of humility. “By changing my mood, my energy, I allowed Eve (Denny’s wife) to regard me differently. And while I cannot say that I am a master of my own destiny, I can say that I have experienced a glimpse of mastery, and I know what I have to work toward.” 

Author Garth Stein deftly manages to keep Enzo as a dog first, not some superhuman philosopher who puts himself above humans. That would have made it cartoonish. Enzo knows his limitations. “I knew what was wrong, but I had no way to tell her, so I pushed at her thigh with my muzzle.”

This may be my favorite thing a dog can think that we can’t say effectively. Enzo desires to come back as a person. “Here’s why I will be a good person. Because I listen. I cannot speak, so I listen very well. I never interrupt, I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own. People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of each other’s conversations constantly. It’s like having a passenger in your car who suddenly grabs the steering wheel and turns you down a side street.”

Here’s another: “So much of language is unspoken.” Think about how a dog who cannot speak has to rely on the rest of language, not only from himself, but from humans.

I even agree with this dog’s choice of great movies and actors. Shoot, I might start attending racing events now that I know how to race in the rain. “Racing is about discipline and intelligence, not about who has the heavier foot. The one who drives smart will always win in the end.”

True for racing, baseball, golf, roping, or any sport, and of course, life.  Try this book.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Last of the Last Roundup

It cast a pall over the camp when the local sheriff took one of the cowboys into custody for rustling. I did not overhear much of the conversation, but it is safe to say that Tom was upset and disappointed. But it didn’t stop us from trotting back more miles to work the herd we gathered that morning and gather another one.

Shep and I more or less stood guard and handled stragglers as Tom built a fire for branding (no blow torches here). They branded and vaccinated all the calves and castrated the bull calves. Then we gathered a second herd in a small corner of the pasture (not a corral or holding pen), built a second fire, and did the same.

The cattle were held on two sides by fence, the other two by mounted cowboys. For the first time, I felt moderately useful. Tom actually signaled me to bring back in a straggler. Rowdy performed well.

As we started to gather a third herd, Tom pointed toward a fuel tank on a hill to the northwest and spoke to Shep and me. “You two head over to that tank. If they try to go past it, point ‘em north. That’s the only hole they can get through.”

As we started to climb the hill where the tank was, a cowboy rode up, hat waving. “Jackson says you’re supposed to go over to the other side of that tank.”

I nodded. “That’s where we’re going.”

He pointed a little south of the fuel tank to a body of water. “There’s the tank.” We had forgotten that pools are called tanks in West Texas. Tom had been pointing to the pool, not the fuel tank. We felt foolish again.

We gathered a third herd and drove them back to camp. The temperature had risen from thirty-one to about ninety-one and I had one of the worst headaches of my life by the time we reached camp. Fortunately, Rowdy had settled down and was behaving like a gentleman, even without the tie-down.

We stood guard for stragglers and runaways and waited for Tom to build another fire, but we only sorted this herd—no branding. We finished by about seven-thirty and had beef covered with cornbread, English peas and blackberry cobbler by the chuckwagon.

My headache left after the meal, but Shep looked a little pale when he revealed that he had forgotten to take his medicine that morning. We sat around the campfire for a while, but were soon ready for bed. We agreed this had been one of the hardest days we had ever spent horseback. I can’t be sure, but I think we trotted close to twenty miles. Not as bad as pulling bolls, but we were sore and so were our horses.

I was unrolling my bedroll when I saw two of the young cowboys from Oklahoma bent over losing their supper. I felt for them, but it made me feel not quite so old. One of their companions came over and pointed to our pickup bed. “Sir, if you have any cold beer in that cooler, I would happily pay you ten dollars for one.”

I laughed. “Sorry. No beer.”

“I would give the same amount for a cold Coke.”

“So would I.”

Gyp water and coffee were still the only liquids.  

Though tired and sore, we rested well that night. The next day, our horses were sore to the point of lameness and so were we. We rode out and watched another branding and captured it on a borrowed video camera. Over dinner of roast beef, beans and corn, we visited more with Tom and Charlie the cook. Both were forthcoming about their lives, even personal matters, and we did get to meet Tom’s wife.

We left shortly after the noon meal and stopped at Guthrie ISD to thank Danny Pickering for his hospitality and for helping us to have the experience of a lifetime. We were not sure we had measured up, but we had something we could mark off our bucket lists. 

We had arrived with a healthy respect for cowboys, cattlemen, and horsemen. We had dreamed of becoming all three, but circumstances and necessity had taken us in different directions. This adventure proved that Tom Moorhouse was all three, and allowed us to vividly imagine what might have been.

In the middle of chronicling our trip, I heard a sniveling, pompous, vain, ignorant politician use the term cowboy in a disparaging way, referring to a series of stupid blunders by bureaucrats as “cowboy”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wanted to take him to the cedar breaks and come back alone.

I often hear “Cowboy” bandied about in derogatory fashion. Soon after the trip I read the book Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West. With a little experience on both sides of that equation, I heartily agree with the book.

Six years after our ride with Tom, I did a lot of research about my ancestors’ coming through that part of the country as fugitives and our trip took on added meaning.

This scene is from Home Light Burning.  Butter hit the cedars like a buffalo bull, creating a din of cracking and popping. Lev felt his shirtsleeves being torn and was grateful for the loan of his father’s leggings as the cedar limbs scratched along both legs. He could almost see over the tops of the cedars, but not quite—just enough to make a man feel trapped and blind.

Sound familiar?  After all was said and done, I never threw my rope, never dragged a calf to the fire. It was not offered and I did not ask. But I am still grateful for the experience. Rowdy and TT?  They never saw each other again.