Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Time to Look Up

As a writer of little note, I don’t have the nerve to say this about my own writing, but I am pleased that Pat Conroy ( Prince of Tides, Beach Music, The Great Santini {my favorite},etc…) did express it in a recent issue of Writer magazine. “A novel is my fingerprint, my identity card, and the writing of novels is one of the few ways I have found to approach the altar of God and creation itself. You try to worship God by performing the singular courageous and impossible favor of knowing yourself.”

Yep, I’m talking religion—religion, spirituality and faith. Some of us were brought up to believe that politics and religion were not proper topics for group discussion. I beg to differ. How can we learn if we don’t openly discuss?  I received several copies of an e-mail titled Look Up a day or so ago. One phrase says: Sorrow looks back, worry looks around, but faith looks up. Live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, and trust in our Creator—Who loves us. If there has ever been a time to look up, this is it.

And it is Christmas season, so I am going to foray into the reason for the season.  I wrote this a few months back, but have been hesitant to post it because I see myself as functionally illiterate on the subject. But I write not as an expert, but as someone with a deep desire to learn.

My bet is that there are a lot of you out there in the boat with me. My justification is that I will be using the words of people that I admire and respect and who do have that expertise. With apologies to all you biblical scholars, evangelists, and other preachers out there, here goes.

When I was a boy, religion in our home was tender to the touch, sometimes maybe even raw. Our forays into organized religion were subject to fits and starts. I heard a lot about a vengeful God from hellfire and brimstone preachers. I feared His wrath, and knew with some degree of certainty that I deserved it.  

It never (well, almost never) rained from the time I was six until I was twelve. As I watched our crops and cattle suffer and our pools dry up and our financial predicament regress from poor to desperate, I wondered what we had done to deserve such punishment. And were our neighbors also guilty of making God angry? 

I described one of our sporadic embraces of religious fervor in a tent revival scene in Rivers Flow. One man seated in the back of the tent bolted from his seat and ran down the aisle.  . . .  the man’s tongue shot out of his mouth and flopped on his chin. He fell backward as if pulled by an invisible rope, flopping on his back and grinding his body against the grass. Jake could smell the dust and the bruised goat weeds the man was wallowing in.

We were believers, but family tragedy and extreme hardship made religion uncomfortable to talk about. We simply did not understand. My Sunday School lessons began to take on some minor degree of clarity when Aunt Lilas gave me her son Jerry’s set of children’s Bibles when Jerry left for the service (both Testaments in color and pictures). I still occasionally refer to them.

One of the great ironies of life seems to be that we often learn how to properly do some task, master a skill, or handle a situation after we feel it is too late to apply what we have learned. Thankfully, I think religion is different. Maybe it isn’t too late.

I remember taking snow skiing lessons many years ago. The instructor spent several minutes trying to explain how to snowplow. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then a fellow beside me illustrated it and told me to think of squashing an ant with my heels. I understood that.

This illustrates how some people “speak to you” while others’ communications go in one ear and out the other. I think I have discovered that this is not always the teacher’s fault; it’s just that there needs to be a match of teacher to pupil.

Ever had a child, spouse, client or friend talk about a book read, a seminar attended, a lecture heard, that revealed some great secret or answer to a question they have been pondering for a lifetime? Ever listen to their enthusiasm, all the while wanting to shout that you have been trying to tell them this secret for years?

Don’t blame them. The author, speaker, or teacher they heard spoke to them. You may not have. It could have been because they knew you too well, that the message had to be delivered by a stranger. In my old business, we often referred to an expert as a person with a briefcase who has traveled more than a hundred miles. There’s a lot of truth to that. We listen to these “experts” while we fail to “hear” the same wisdom from familiar sources. 

Next week, I will be talking about author C. S. Lewis and one of his books, Mere Christianity and its effect on me. Then we will explore two more books by another author. You have been warned.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Jerry Don Test

This is the eulogy I delivered for a great friend last week.

Jerry and I have been friends for over fifty years. Our paths have diverged and crossed many times. During times when we had more in common, we traveled the same paths for long periods. We helped each other get through stressful periods in our lives. Then he would go off and do his thing and I would do mine. 

Our interests changed, but I always knew I had a friend in Jerry, a friend I could call on who would come running and bring all his tools and equipment. A friend who was not afraid to get his hands dirty helping out.   

I first met him when I worked at City Pharmacy in downtown Commerce. He had left the job I held at the drugstore to become a men’s clothing salesman for Jim Clark’s down the street.

He sat down at the counter one day about closing time as I was wrestling with the wooden pallets behind the soda fountain. He made some suggestions as to how to do it more efficiently. I looked over at this handsome fellow all decked out in a tie and sport coat. That’s the first time I remember seeing Jerry Lambert. I admit I was a little irritated at his unsolicited advice, but he soon proved himself to be sincere and friendly and shared a few more helpful hints about the job he had held before me.

Our kids grew up together. Kim and Shelly have maintained a friendship from about age 6 to now. I won’t mention how many decades that covers. Jerry and Derek built the fence around our yard almost thirty years ago. By the way, Derek, that is the only fence on the place that I have never had to repair.   

When I first heard that Jerry Don was ill, several things came to my mind immediately. One is the way that Jerry liked to get “up close and personal”. We were about the same height, but he usually managed to get himself up under my chin, even going so far as to bump his shoulder against my chest or put a hand on my arm when he was talking to me. I noticed that it was his habit to talk to everyone that way. He liked looking you right in the eyes. That’s just one of the ways Jerry Don showed how much he liked people and why he had such a loving family and so many friends.

When I went to see him at home the first time after hearing that he was not going to survive, he seemed like his usual exuberant self, not much subdued from pain or medication, ignoring the elephant in the room—the forecast of his impending death. I listened to him describe the path his illness had taken, the decisions he had made, the courageous path he had chosen in how to live the last days of his life. 

We were sitting side by side on barstools and when he turned to look at me directly, I asked him if I could tell him a few stories—if I could relate the memories that had flooded my mind and stayed there.  But first, I told him about another friend that I had visited a few years back who was in a similar situation. I admitted that as I drove away after seeing that friend for the last time, I knew he had done more for me than I could ever do for him. 

I had not had any eloquent or soothing words for that friend and I regretted that I did not have any for Jerry. All I had were memories. He asked me to tell the stories. I think they say a lot about Jerry Don Lambert.

The first has to do with the dune buggy he used to own. After being chained to a desk twelve hours a day for twelve weeks of tax season, I always thirsted for the outdoors. Jerry, in his usual generous spirit, always loaned me the Volkswagen he had converted to a dune buggy.

One year, I found a particularly good stretch of off-road to my liking and, exercising what I viewed as superior driving skill, plunged that VW into an embankment, bending at least one wheel. I feared the entire frontend would have to be replaced, definitely repaired.

I got it to the shop, called Jerry, offered profuse apologies and promised to repair the damage. His cheerful response:   “Don’t worry about it, partner. That thing is for having fun. It’s made to take rough treatment.”

Then there was the ping pong tournament. We were in New Mexico on a skiing trip with our families and a few more many years ago and found ourselves in an after-ski place that had a ping pong table. There were four or five of us guys, so I suggested a tournament. Before we started playing, Jerry picked up a paddle that quickly looked like a natural appendage to his arm. He tapped the paddle on the table and said, “I have to warn you, boys. I cut my teeth on a ping pong table”.

I smiled, thinking of the hundreds of lunch periods I had spent in the rec. room of a defense contractor I worked for, playing ping pong, pool and shuffleboard. But we all quickly found that Jerry was not exaggerating. He had cut his teeth on a ping pong table and had lost little or none of his hand-eye coordination.

Jerry played his first hole of golf with me. Neither of us remembers the exact details, but I had a set of cheap clubs, had just finished nine holes and was ready to head home just as dark approached. I saw Jerry in the parking lot and told him he should start playing with me sometime. With his usual enthusiasm, he said, “How about now?”
Well, it was almost dark and he didn’t have any clubs. Not to mention the flip flops he was wearing.

He looked down at his feet and at the rising moon. “Can I borrow your sticks? We’ll have time for at least a couple of holes. With that moon, we might play nine.”

I hit the first ball off the tee to show him how it was done. I cringed a little as he teed up the ball and took a couple of practice swings that seemed dangerously close to his toes. Then he hit one, turned to me and said, “Is that how you do it?”

I winced when I saw his ball in the middle of the fairway about thirty yards past the one I had hit in the rough. “Yep, that’s how you do it.”

He developed this habit of forecasting his shots that I found annoying at first.  What made the habit annoying was that, about half the time, he was right. I quit playing a few years after that. Gave up in frustration. But Jerry kept going.

His golfing buddies tell me that Jerry kept forecasting where the ball was going to go and actually making it go there. Occasionally, he would hit one in the rough and leave himself a really tough lie behind a tree or two. Instead of playing it safe, taking a stroke and punching one out into the fairway and taking a bogey or, in my case, a double bogey, he would take the more difficult path.

“Okay, boys. I’m gonna hook this a little to get past that first tree, make it duck between the two limbs on the second, then fade it right. I figure about three bounces will put me on the edge of the green. With a thirty foot putt, I can get it in for a birdie.” 

His buddies stopped laughing at those predictions a long time ago—because Jerry almost always made the ball perform just as he predicted. He was usually the smallest guy in the group, but hit the ball the longest distance.

My favorite story as we talked was the footrace. Jerry and I compared notes on this story, so if there is anyone here who ran in the footrace or remembers it differently, forever hold your peace. Jerry and I agreed that this is the way it was. 

This story also begins at Sand Hills—also at sunset. A close round of golf had left some young men’s competitive challenges unsettled. Horseplay and boasting soon led to more challenges, more boasts about who was better, stronger and faster. It was too dark to settle their scores playing more golf, so the young men settled on a foot race.

As we recalled, Jerry and I were only spectators up to that point. When we went outside to watch the race, Jerry started to roll up the legs to his jeans. I asked him what he was doing. He said “I’m gonna run in this race.” He sat down on the # 1 tee box and started removing his shoes.

Even I was surprised. “Barefoot? Have you thought about goat heads?” Jerry ignored me as he took off his socks. The race was from the tee box to the green and back as we recalled—a distance of about 700 yards. “Have you looked at these guys? They’re all taller and have longer legs than you. Plus they’re a lot younger.”

He started to limber up. “Yeah, well, I probably won’t win. But I used to be pretty fast barefoot.” I remembered the ping pong remark, but hand-eye coordination is one thing, stamina and running barefoot for long distances is another.

Well, the excitement was surprising and contagious as the runners left the tee box. All of us spectators were caught up in this unplanned event. It was too dark to see the runners touch the flag on the #1 green, but I soon heard the sound of their shoes clomping on the grass on their return from the green to the tee box.

But I could not hear bare feet, so I worried that Jerry might have cut a foot or given up and was walking back. No shame in that, I thought. It was too dark to make them out at first. But, eventually, the dim lights of the parking lot and clubhouse revealed a set of arms pumping, knees going high and strong. I will never forget my surprise (make that shock), when I saw that the guy without shoes was out in front.

Without ever mentioning it, Jerry was a natural at visualization. It helped him in his golf game to verbalize what he saw in his head. He saw himself winning that footrace, too. He used the same technique in hunting and fishing. He saw in his mind, where, when and how he was going to hunt or fish, what type of equipment he was going to use and how he was going to use it. That often resulted in his harvesting the most fish or quail, the buck with the biggest rack. 

The final story has to do with a flat bed trailer. I lived in town in those days, and had no place to park a flat bed trailer, so I didn’t own one. But almost everyone has an occasional need for one. I, along with people from at least four counties, borrowed Jerry’s. I have seen that trailer all over Delta, Hunt, Fannin, and Hopkins counties, often overloaded, always pulled by someone other than Jerry. Sometimes, it came back much the worse for wear. But I never heard Jerry complain about it.

Those other stories exemplify Jerry Lambert’s gregariousness and adventurous spirit, his affectionate nature, his love of people. The trailer exemplifies the man’s kindness and generosity. There are many more examples of all those things. There are dozens of hunting and fishing stories, for example. All of us here today could tell Jerry stories for hours.

One other thing, I don’t recall ever seeing Jerry get angry. I have seen him a little upset, but never just plain mad. He seemed to like people too much to harbor any time of grudge. I am sure there were times and events that I am not aware of, but they must have been rare.

When we finished with the stories that day, Jerry leveled with me about the heartache and struggle facing him, reiterating his long held conviction that material things don’t really matter much when it comes down to it. It’s love that counts, particularly love of family.  He was not ready to say goodbye to Joan, to Derek and Rhonda, to Kim and Joe and their families. And he wanted to see his grandchildren grow up. There were other things he was not ready to give up, but he was determined to make his peace with it.

I know that he had already started checking things off his bucket list. I know that his loving family made it possible for him to check off a few more before departing this life.

It’s obvious to everyone who knew him that Jerry also had a lot of good friends. He and Joan entertained regularly, opening their home to a pretty steady stream of guests. Jerry wasn’t ready to give that up, either.

One of the measurements of a man’s life is the people whose lives he touched in a positive way. By that measure, Jerry Lambert stands tall.

The stories over, our chuckles subsiding, I took his hand to say goodbye. The handshake quickly turned into a hug, our laughter to tears. And as I headed home, I realized that, though my intentions were good, Jerry had done much more for me than I had done for him. I expect that this room is full of folks who can say exactly the same thing about Jerry Lambert. Now that’s a legacy any person would be proud to leave behind.

Immediately after the visit and for all the days since, I use his visualization technique and imagine Jerry talking to me each time I found myself complaining about some task I have to do or some minor misfortune or inconvenience that comes my way.

I vowed to put each of those tasks and misfortunes to what I call the “Jerry Don test”.  Given his situation, would Jerry Don be doing this? Would he worry about this misfortune or laugh at it, recognize it for how little it really matters? He always has a good answer. It’s a test I hope to continue for the rest of my days.

Another part of the legacy of a good, kind, and generous husband, father, grandfather and friend.   

Jerry Don Lambert left us with our memories and a warm feeling in our hearts November 8, 2012.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

She Rode to the Whistle

Last week, we talked about Brenda Black White’s book of poetry, The Thing About Me. The cover, of course, featured a table set up for tea. And with each submission of a cover for her approval, she found something not to like. But the designer finally satisfied her precise tastes.  With the book going to press, Brenda scheduled a tea party to celebrate.

Fred Tarpley referred to her gatherings as “High Teas”. I will never forget the last one. Dr. Michael Johnson, an author and speaker Brenda simply called Cowboy, arrived with me. It was hot, and I wore one of my best colored t-shirts, wranglers faded and washed to a nice softness, and well-broken-in boots.

Michael had on a dusty black cowboy hat and his usual starched jeans and shirt with boots, of course. When we walked in, Brenda was already holding literary court with Dr. Fred Tarpley, well known author, editor, linguist and professor, (and my publishing partner and editor). Also present was professor, author and publisher Dr. Charles Linck. When Dr. James Conrad arrived, we all congratulated him on his award from the Texas Institute of Letters for his most recent book. I felt a little rough-around-the-edges in this gathering of literary legends.

Brenda offered us vanilla-rum tea and our choice of key lime pie, chocolate ice cream pie, or cheesecake served with a rather stern visage by Victoria, her caregiver. Michael excused himself and I smiled as I watched him (from my seat at the literary table) lean over the bathroom sink to wash the snuff out of his mouth.  I felt out of my element, but comfortable because Brenda was there and I knew that my presence as her publisher was a command performance.

I remember looking around the room and trying to imagine what this eclectic group might have looked like in a situation comedy. What a sight we must have made, sipping tea, eating pie and cookies, all under Brenda’s watchful eye. She brought us all together, stimulated the conversations, directed the event as if it were a stage play. 

The title poem’s first lines tell a lot about Brenda.
            The Thing about me
            Is that I’m always falling in love
            With men, women, little kids, everybody and everything
            Butterflies, sunsets, clouds, daisies
            Birds, books, music, movies
            But mainly people.

When The Thing About Me was ready for print, I wrote this message in the front as a note from the publisher:
            Brenda Black White faces more adversity in a day than most of us do in a lifetime.  She does it with aplomb and raw courage.  When much is taken away, much is given in return.  The bucking and pitching of her life has given Brenda a wider range of sensitivity and experience.  In her own words, she is “on till the whistle and tied to the hitch”, and her poems reflect tenderness and deep awareness of  the blessings and curses of an unusually wild ride.  Brenda says, “I’ll ride this wild bastard till I’m thrown in the ditch” . . . and she will.  Brenda’s poems are full of grit and sass, expertly blended with romance and a deep appreciation of everyday life.  Her writing can be tender and gentle, but also raw, gutsy, and lusty.  Be ready. 

 Brenda did, indeed, ride to the whistle, outliving the short life predicted for her by more than three decades.  I have been to a lot of rodeos, seen lots of rides to the whistle, but none did it as well or as long as Brenda. In the end, the wild stallion finally threw her. She was dropped while being loaded into her van for a medical trip. Bones were broken that would never heal.

She still called after she finally returned home, offering her usual cheery, “Hello, hello, hello.” She found a flannel shirt that she thought I would like and invited me over to present it as a gift. But things were not going to get better.    

She called me for the last time two weeks before she left us in January, 2010. When I spoke at her funeral, I sent up a short message to all the angels in heaven.  Brenda is coming.  Be ready. 

A review  posted on Barnes and Noble. GO DOWN LOOKING is another stunning novel from the author who gave us HOME LIGHT BURNING and the Rivers series, which GO DOWN LOOKING aptly concludes. I was drawn into the story from page one, both for its authenticity-- a Jim Ainsworth trademark-- and the elegiac quality of the writing. If you haven't read any of the Rivers novels, start with the first one. You will fall in love with the highly skeptical and ever authentic Jake Rivers. You will find yourself caring deeply what happens to Jake and his family through all their struggles with life, and with one another. GO DOWN LOOKING will break your heart at times, and the outcome will be both moving and fully satisfying. --from Suzanne Morris, author of GALVESTON and The Clearharbour Trilogy

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Life is a Stallion

I first saw the attractive young wife of a new doctor in town when I was working my way through college as a soda jerk and delivery boy at City Pharmacy in Commerce. She came in fairly often with a few of her friends to have a mid-afternoon coffee or soda.

I don’t recall when I learned that she had been stricken with a terrible disease, but I do recall being told that she was only expected to live a few years. I remember the morbid prophesy, “She won’t ever see forty.” Whoever said that didn’t really know Brenda Black White.

I had no contact with Brenda after I finished college, even though I eventually returned to Commerce. Decades had passed before she was kind enough to call me one day after Biscuits Across the Brazos was published. She had a lot of nice things to say about the little book and I could tell I was talking to a sassy, but classy lady.

She came to one of the outdoor stews we had on our little ranch and that was the first time I saw what scleroderma had done to her. A character in Rivers Crossing is afflicted with the disease and I did a lot of research on this cruel malady that has no known cause or cure. It usually attacks the skin, making the face appear as a taut mask, but it also attacks the organs, leads to respiratory problems, bone and muscle pain, digestion difficulties, and dental problems.

Brenda endured most, if not all, that scleroderma inflicts. She was confined to a wheelchair and had to use the eraser end of a pencil to turn pages in a book or to type on her computer.  But she fought with all the weapons available to her. She did her research, and knew what those weapons were.

When I began writing in earnest, my friend and mentor Fred Tarpley got me into several projects I never intended to pursue (most of which I am grateful for). One of those was publishing. Publishing novels and memoirs was one thing, but if anyone had ever told me that I would publish a book of poetry, I would have laughed. Not because I have an aversion to poetry, but because I know little about it, certainly not how to edit it. Fred assured me that we could handle it.

He put me in touch with Brenda again. I hadn’t seen her in five or six years, and didn’t know that she was a published poet who had achieved notoriety by reading her work in places as far away as New York. I read her Callahan County book of poems. Her often edgy, sometimes humorous, frequently dark, always deeply felt verses provoked a range of emotions. And you just knew every word came from her heart. One line would make you laugh, the next would make you cry or cringe.

She invited me over for tea one afternoon and I’m ashamed to admit that I dreaded it. I told her I didn’t drink much hot tea, so she lured me with key lime pie. Her disabilities embarrassed me at first, but five minutes after I sat down, she had me laughing. I forgot her severe handicaps.

She asked me what kind of music I liked, what books I read. The conversation was stimulating and punctuated with a lot of laughter. When I left, she gave me a card with her doctrine for living expressed in her poem called Life.
            Life is a stallion
            And I’m on a real bitch
            The ride would be smoother
            If he didn’t buck and pitch
            But I’m on till the whistle
            And tied to the hitch
            And I’ll ride this wild bastard
            Till he throws me in the ditch

A week later, she downloaded two or three dozen songs she thought I would like to three CD’s. I dropped by for the CD’s and some ice cream chocolate pie.

Brenda and Fred put together another book of her poems. When we began the publishing process, I could never get her to agree on a cover for The Thing About Me. The tablecloth was a quarter inch too short, the flowers not just right, the color not rich enough. I pushed her at first, but finally stepped back and let her work with the designer and gave them a deadline. They met it. She planned another tea party to celebrate.More about that tea party and Brenda next week. 

Another review on Amazon for Go Down Looking from Dr. William Thompson
Jim Ainsworth's trilogy on the Rivers family introduced readers to a compelling cast of characters as well as the fascinating cultures of both East and West Texas. Go Down Looking is the fourth piece picking up where the trilogy ended. Ainsworth is a truly gifted writer who brings his characters to life in a most believable and interesting way. He describes his books as "fiction based on true stories" and unveils his characters and plot lines in such a way that the reader cannot distinguish where the truth ends and the fiction begins, or vice-versa. I'm a devout Ainsworth fan, and find it hard to believe that we have not seen his novels transformed into screenplays and featured as made for television movies. Like most readers, I've already cast all the characters in my mind and can see their faces and hear their voices in Ainsworth's prose. I highly recommend Go Down Looking and Jim's other novels. If you haven't read them, you are truly missing a wonderful experience.