Friday, March 31, 2006

A new accomplishment: Schlockmeister

I like to keep a balanced view of everything because, in my life anyway, there are no absolutes. Good mixes in with bad on a daily basis. Love can't always be moonlight and roses. Life has its extremes. This is true whether you are a nurse, a writer, an icon of industry, or a plumber.

My balance sheet for 40 years as a nurse, for example, would be mostly positive. But mixed in with the compliments would be the enraged gentleman who told me, "You're so effing dumb you couldn't put out a fire on your ass with both hands and a fire hose!" That incident was 30 years ago and I've forgotten many of my experiences, but not that man, his words, or how he looked screaming at me in the Emergency Room entrance.

As a writer I joke about "shameless self promotion" but the truth is that tooting my own horn is hard for me. When presented with golden opportunities to promote myself, I usually fall short. Glowing reviews of my poetry and prose are privately savored. I'm pleased when other writers ask me to host retreats so they can learn to write in my style. When a critic says, "Her poetic words flow seamlessly, creating a story of incredible depth." I'm thankful and file that away for future reference. And when someone says of my first book, The Grass Dance, that it's "the worst schlock I've ever read" I give that statement considerable thought.

What is schlock? An online dictionary says schlock is inferior goods or literature. So if my book is the worst schlock that person ever read, that makes me a schlockmeister, right?

Could it be that The Grass Dance really is schlock? If I could rewrite it today, would it be a better book now than it was when published in 2001? Hmmm. I'll give this some balanced thought and get back to you.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Writers LOVE publicity!!

It's been awhile since I've posted here. A couple of my faithful readers gave me gentle hell about that. Sorry, but I've been meeting myself coming and going, meeting deadlines and making road trips.

OH publicity!! I tried to insert a smiley but could not figure out how to make it work. :) Copy and paste was not effective.

Unknown writers like me rarely enjoy even tiny bits of publicity. Thanks to several nice FANS, I have some better-than-average publicity going for me.

Thursday March 30 I will be featured on WPSU TV and their evening program Pennsylvania Inside Out. The interviewer, Patty Satalia, and the technical staff did a beautiful job of promoting me and my latest book. Several of you have asked if this program will be featured on national public broadcasting stations. No, WPSU broadcasts through most of Pennsylvania and a small corner of New York but not across the country. Sorry folks. Check them out at http://wpsu.psu.edu. This TV appearance is related to My Name is Esther Clara.

April 6 and 7 I will attend a nursing retreat in North Platte NE. I've never been to North Platte so will be excited to see new territory. Attendees will be Directors of Nursing and Nurse Managers employed by the Good Samaritan Society. Each will receive a copy of the Cup of Comfort for Nurses anthology. These anthologies are best selling books of inspiration and comfort. A short story of mine appears in the one for nurses. Thanks to another FAN, I'm privileged to be a featured speaker at the retreat.

Finally, something wonderful happened this past week. A favorite writer of mine, MAX YOHO and his wife CAROL, suggested I contact the Director of Kansas Center for the Book. The KCFB Director, Roy Bird, is helpful and encouraging, quite excited about the KCFB goal of encouraging Kansans to read for pleasure. The programs in place are numerous and I suggest you check their website at www.kcfb.info to learn more about them. The part related to me is the Notable Book Award. Twenty books are chosen each year as notable books, each written by a Kansas author OR content related to Kansas in some way. Since I am a Kansas native, and My Name is Esther Clara features various locations in Kansas prominently, I qualify for nomination. Now I understand that out of heaven-only-knows how many books nominated, my book has only an outside chance of being chosen as a Notable Book, but it sure has been a thrill to be considered.

So here is my heartfelt public "THANK YOU" to the fans who opened these DOORS and made this publicity possible: Don and Carol Ford and TV personality Patty Satalia in State College PA; Eldeen Watson of the Nebraska Good Samaritan Society; Max and Carol Yoho and Roy Bird of Kansas.

Check out Max Yoho's books at www.dancinggoatpress.com. I've read them all and his writing style is exceptional.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Why does Laurel Johnson write?

Readers, writers, and my tiny fan base have asked me why I write. What drove a retired Registered Nurse to write novels, short stories, and poetry? This is my answer.

One cold November day in 1981, life changed for me. My thought processes radically shifted when I saw the orange-sized mass growing on the underside of my mother's breast. Just as she had coexisted with violence and sorrow in her marriage – with hopeless resignation -- my Mother had silently and stoically allowed a vicious cancer to metastasize.

In my head and heart the horror of that moment halted and reversed the progression of time. I became a frightened child again, hiding out in the alley where my mother couldn't see me. The alley was where I cried, wished, and prayed for a new life for Mother and her kids, where I trembled and vomited when Dad had been particularly drunk or violent. I relived everything from age three until I had arrived back at that horrible morning in November. I knew my mother would die without knowing what life could be with a man who did not batter flesh and crush dreams. She was a hopeless romantic who would die without ever knowing tenderness or romance.

I'd always had a good vocabulary and a "way with words." Mother had encouraged my writing of poems and short stories in childhood, but adulthood had ended all thoughts of creative writing. Desperate for a means of venting rage and horror, I began to write around the time Mother was recuperating from her mastectomy. I wrote to create a new reality for her. I wrote so she could figuratively travel and experience a devoted lover's sweetness.

I say The Alley of Wishes is a fictional allegory, a blending of my mother's life and my thoughts. Yes, an alley figures prominently in the book, but love blossoms and thrives in my fictional alley. A vicious monster bullies and brutalizes but is not allowed to permanently rob a loving woman of her essence. Best of all, I created for my mother the lover she should have had in life. A man can be flawed without losing humanity or tender feelings. Large work-rough hands can ease sorrow, create beauty, or enhance sexual pleasure. It is possible for the explosive expression of physical passion to coexist with unconditional love. These were the gifts I gave Mother through my writing.

That was 1981. My mother died in 1984 without ever reading that book and here it is two decades later. What happened to The Alley of Wishes in that interim? For most of those years it lay dormant in a friend's closet, forgotten and abandoned. No, I didn't have writer's block, just forgot about writing and the book itself. In 2001 I wrote a memoir that included the awful time while my mother was ill and dying. The time was right to get that off my chest and move on. Strangely, that first book did not completely purge the residual pain I felt from her loss. More remained to be said, with imagined endings to create for my mother in her absence. So I tackled The Alley of Wishes again.

As a writer, I create much like the farmer / warrior / lover / artist Beck Sanow, the book's main character. Words explode to life on paper instead of on canvas with paint. I finessed and revised the original manuscript for a year or more. As an unknown writer, I knew there was small chance of gaining the attention of an agent or publisher and I did not have the heart or energy to face innumerable rejections. The most important goal for me was to have this fictional story I wrote for my mother in print, to hold in my hands. I self-published through 1stBooks, an expense I could not afford but felt necessary. Less than two months after the book was released through 1stBooks, Carol Adler of Dandelion Books asked to see the manuscript. She saw in it what I had hoped the world would see, a love story unlike anything most readers have experienced.

My purging is not complete. There are fictional allegories simmering still, waiting to become prose. If I can find the time and energy, more such books will follow. The stories, characters, and locations will be different but the message will continue to be for my mother. Unconditional love is possible if the right people connect. Sexual passion can be pure and free of wounds. Decency and devotion can exist between lovers. Life CAN have happy endings and does not have to be a nightmare of physical, mental, and emotional violence. I am the living proof of that last statement. I have gone from battered child to troubled adult to successful writer. No, I'm not a well-known author with best selling books, but four have been written and published to my satisfaction and that is success to me.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Prospect Hill Cemetery and other wonders.....

My youth was spent on mundane pursuits, most of which I can't remember now. My siblings, the neighbor kids, and I splashed barefoot through puddles after a rain. We picked dandelion, poppy, and rose bouquets for our mothers. Reading library books and listening to the radio each evening provided exotic worlds to visit through words and sound. But I can't remember ever noticing the beautiful sights around me. That came when I was older, much older, and wearied by the sad predicabilities of life.

Yesterday I visited what has to be one of the most awesome spots in Kansas, Prospect Hill Cemetery near Blue Rapids, Kansas. Early pioneers surely chose this isolated place for the peaceful vistas spanning miles around the cemetery. A brisk, biting wind froze hands and cheeks and soughed through ancient pine trees as we laid our friend to rest on Prospect Hill. Such winds are common in the plains and carry with them scents and spirits not present anywhere else on earth. Prairie winds howl down from the north in winter, roar in from the southwest in summer, stir gently through native grasses and trees in season. In childhood I can't recall loving or even noticing these winds, but I welcome them now.

Prospect Hill overlooks the vast Blue River Valley. In times primordial, native tribes enjoyed her bounty: riparian woodlands rich with game; pure water ever present, gushing from the heart of limestone cliffs; and great grassland prairies grazed by herds of antelope and buffalo. Seen from the top of Prospect Hill, the Blue River winds serpentine through a pristine valley. Black earth that once supported tipi villages of hunter-gatherers has now been broken by the plows of farmers for several generations, but despite the changes two hundred years of settlers have wrought, the Blue River Valley is still breath taking and sparsely populated. The face of this place was carved by an inland sea, the ice ages, the sediments of flooding creeks and rivers, harsh winds, and untold eons of time. That thought humbled me yesterday as my eyes and spirit took in the broad rolling river valley. And I wished that I could live there for what remains of my life, there with the changing winds and seasons at the top of Prospect Hill.

Jokesters call Kansas the land of Oz. Those who make jokes about the bland topography of Kansas have never been to Prospect Hill.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Esther Clara and Politics



While watching the news on TV lately, I think of Grandma. Esther Clara had definite opinions about everything and politics was no exception. Or maybe I should say ESPECIALLY politics. Grandma would be shocked to know that nothing much ever changes where politics are concerned. The government is so deep in debt that the Depression years seem like a picnic. 70-plus years ago she said, "How could the brightest, richest country in the world get itself and its people into such a pickle?" She'd be repeating that mantra today.

The Medicare D confusion is ongoing. A tiny handful of politicians say that everyone should have the same insurance our congressmen and senators have. Grandma and Grandpa would have had fiery debates about that!! Decades ago they both believed a stern lesson in setting priorities was in order for our government and the world. They'd be even more adamant about that today while hearing of cuts to Veterans, education, social programs for children, Social Security, or health care. To quote one of their favorite discussions: "Herb wasn't one to argue, but he could get riled up about what he saw as injustice. We both found it curious and disturbing that our government can't find the money to benefit veterans and education, but seems to find a few stray billion dollars to funnel overseas. And those same elected politicians who say our government is going broke funding social programs, well, Herb was of the mind that they have a nice social program of their own going. Politicians have the power to vote themselves the best health care, wages and benefits, regardless of what the voters think. And once they have it, they sure don't ever let go."

I love our country as my Grandma and Grandpa did before me, but the nice thing about living in America is that we can say what we think. I tend to agree with Esther Clara's philosophy: "We live in a wonderful country. I've seen our growing pains transform themselves over time into positive changes. But I do think our government's priorities are out of line. My thought has always been that the value of our citizens and taxpayers cannot be measured in money or words. The citizens who fought our wars, paid taxes, and raised the current generation of taxpayers were forced to set priorities, and elected officials should be measured by the same yardstick. Our personal budget was not limitless, and politicians should not be living like tax money grows on trees."

Thus sayeth Esther Clara, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, citizen, and taxpayer. She and Grandpa Herb were working class patriots. They proudly posted one star in their window during W.W. 1 and two stars during W.W. 2. They raised Victory Gardens, bought war bonds, and cooperated with rationing during two wars. But they did not always agree with the politics involved in government decision making. They were not bashful about spouting their opinions. So as I watch the news each day, I find it frightening that the scenarios they fussed about decades ago are more firmly entrenched than ever today.

All quotes taken from Grandma's memoir, My Name is Esther Clara.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Dispatches from Kansas

I love making intriguing discoveries. Today I simply must rave about a blog I discovered on my nephew's page. Dispatches from Kansas is the blogspot. Readers from other states who think Kansas and the plains are dull and lifeless will have a different thought once they read Tom Parker's paeans to his prairie haunts.

As a writer, I'm always humbled to read prose that stuns me to silence. Tom Parker's prose is extraordinary. I rarely envy any other writer's voice, not because I'm arrogant but because each writer creates from a different core. Parker's core, his roots, are very similar to mine and yet his prose style is so far superior that I'm envious. Yes I am. I confess it. I envy his writing style, the breathtaking way he manipulates words to paint a picture for his readers.

Tom Parker is from small town Kansas, as I am. He loves the people and the lifestyle, grieves over lost habitat and rejoices when he finds those pristine places that lift man's spirit. If you don't venture into any other unknown blogger territory, this one time visit Parker's blog. Read one or two of his stories. Leave him a message. I intend to be a regular visitor to his world from this day forward.

Kudos to you, Tom!! I can't wait to see what you share with us next.

Monday, March 06, 2006

WPSU -- Penn State Public Broadcasting and Me

Or, how a writer from the plains of Kansas and Nebraska found herself on TV in Pennsylvania.

This will be my last in the series of Pennsylvania trip blogs. The series would not be complete without sharing my experience as a guest, interviewed for Pennsylvania Inside Out. WPSU staff contacted me well ahead of time about the interview via email and letter. Producer Marie Hornbein and co-host Patty Satalia provided helpful suggestions about appearing on a live television taping. Dee Fudrow sent a complimentary parking pass for the event.

Now, a TV interview is not something I'm asked to do on a regular basis. In fact, as the relatively unknown author of four books, I'm not accustomed to media attention of any kind. The WPSU staff, program producer, crew, and host went out of their way to ease me into the limelight.

The subject of this interview was my latest book, My Name is Esther Clara. This first person memoir of my maternal grandmother's life had been reviewed by Ms. Satalia and contains lengthy segments about areas of Pennsylvania visited by my grandparents. The interview questions asked were thoughtfully chosen, pertinent to the book and me as writer.

I had been advised by writers with TV experience not to act like a deer caught in the headlights, not to watch the camera crew, and NOT to watch myself on the monitor. Boy, was that ever good advice!! I tried to comply, especially after catching a glimpse of myself on the monitor as viewers will see me. Ms. Satalia put me at ease and I was less nervous than expected.

The entire experience was a treat, thanks in large part to the professionals who work at WPSU. I'm not sure when my segment will air, but am grateful for the opportunity to talk about my work on TV. This was an experience few unknown writers have. Many heartfelt thanks to WPSU, Patty Satalia, Marie Hornbein, and everyone involved in making this opportunity happen.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Elwyn

I made a delightful discovery during my Pennsylvania trip. As the history goes, first there was a pet mouse who died, was buried in a matchbox, and mysteriously disappeared from its makeshift coffin. Was Elwyn the mouse resurrected? Risen from the grave like Phoenix rising from the ashes? The mystery of Elwyn the mouse remains unsolved but four friends honored him by choosing his name for their band. I saw humor in that, compassion, and a hopeful optimism.

One night at dinner, playing in the background to our conversation, I heard music. Funky, jazzy, bluesy, sophisticated, seductively appealing music with the occasional Latin influence. The music flowed smoothly from one sensational track to the next. Lyrics were earthy and exciting, vocals delivered with control and passion. When they noticed I had one ear cocked to the music, Pam and Doug Ford said, "Oh yeah, that's Elwyn."

Their son Ryan smiled shyly and said, "Elwyn is our band." By OUR, he meant four long time friends: Dave Anderson, John Adamski, Brian Miroff, and Ryan Ford. All are gifted musicians, but are also intelligent and accomplished in other ways.

Now readers of this series of blogs already know I'm OLD, but I'm not too old to recognize tremendous music when I hear it. My youth was spent in part listening to young, new, unknown singers and musicians who would eventually become icons of several generations: Buddy Holly; Ritchie Valens; Jerry Lee Lewis; Bill Haley and the Comets. I saw them all in person in the tiny dives of rural Kansas in the days they schlepped from one small town to another, before the fame set in. One thing they all had in common was a distinctive sound, a sound every group from the Stones to the Beatles said influenced their creative process.

That brings me back to Elwyn. Their sound has the same excitement, the same raw-nerve-ending rhythms composed and delivered with sophisticated style. Check out their website at www.elwynmusic.com if you want to hear a sample of their music and learn more about the band. Or see them live in the second round of the Emergenza Music Festival at Cambridge Mass. on March 17. I'm guessing they're amazing in front of a live audience.

As for me, this old lady writer keeps their music playing in the background while I write. I'm addicted to their sound.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Legacies


Thanks to all the regular readers of my blog who sent email commentaries about my trip to Pennsylvania. If I have any sort of legacy, it's that my friends and relatives love me and I am delighted to love them back. My Pennsylvania relatives may be embarrassed that I brag about them, but they are the main reason I have such fondness for State College, Penn State, and the Keystone State in general.

One thing all Ford and Sanow descendents have in common is a strong work ethic tempered with energy and humor. And they tend to marry spouses who are gifted and humorous too. The patriarch of this clan, Don Ford, came to Penn State from Kansas State University in the era of Milton Eisenhower. Don was awarded his PhD at Penn State and later developed a new college of Human Development. He is retired now, Professor Emeritus and Dean Emeritus of Human Development. Despite his many accomplishments, Don's roots remain firmly planted in the Kansas plains from which he sprang. He still enjoys the scent of fertile earth and tending growing things. He works the soil now just like he did in boyhood. This man who educated himself and exerted positive influence on generations of students has the same boyish energy and sturdy core he had 60 years ago. I appreciate that.

Don's wife, Carol, has quietly asserted her own impact throughout the years. Profits from her craft business, The Personal Touch, went to fund needed services such as Meals on Wheels and health services for those who might not afford health care otherwise. It's safe to say that the effects of her benevolence are still rippling outward in State College, Centre County, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, although she is now officially retired. Her legacy is of equal importance to Don's, just took a different form.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, their first born Russell Ford has accomplishments of his own. Russell will give the commencement address at Penn State this Spring. With classic Ford humility, he wondered why anyone would consider him accomplished. What sort of legacy did HE have to offer, was his question. His brother Doug laughed at that ingenuous question and said, "Good grief, Brother! You've been instrumental in systematically renovating downtown Harrisburg one building at a time for more than 20 years! What greater legacy could a man want?" There's that Ford humor again, and the ability to zero in on the truth. And Russell's wife Barb is a stylish businesswoman now that their children are adults.

So now you know a brief bit about my Pennsylvania relatives. Don and Carol, Russell and Barb, Doug and Pam. Their son Martin and wife Sheri live in Virginia and son Cameron and wife Gricel live in Florida so I did not have the opportunity to spend time with them. Maybe another time. My next blog will be a change of pace and a surprise so stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Joe Paterno, the Ratskeller and a stage play

Yesterday's blog inspired an angry comment from "Townie" in State College, who suggested perhaps I am too old to enjoy what Happy Valley has to offer. Well, I AM a certain age and mourn the destruction of wilderness areas in several states I've lived, worked, or visited. Today I'll try to do better.

It's been years since I've experienced a stage play so was thrilled when my State College cousins asked me to accompany them to The Boyfriend. I'm no critic, but the whole production was professionally done and lots of fun. The Penn State School of Theatre and University Resident Theatre Company can take bows all around. The choreography was top notch, the music entertaining. I'm not artistic by any stretch of the imagination, but even I was impressed with the scenery. Cousin Pam Ford is a gifted artist and has worked on numerous stage productions, so she gave me a birds' eye view of why background scenes are important to a production. So, The Boyfriend was educational as well as entertaining. Well done, Penn State. I'm grateful for the opportunity to see your theatrical troupe in action. Thanks to Pam and Doug Ford for taking me along on their evening at the theatre.

Since my last visit to State College, a bronze statue of Joe Paterno has been added to the front of the stadium. I've been an admirer of Paterno for decades, as both coach and human being. When Doug and Pam suggested I have my picture taken with Joe Paterno's statue, I was excited. The statue is beautiful, a fitting tribute to a man who influenced college football forever with his philosophy. Whoever created that bronze is an artist.

No visit to State College would be complete without lunch at the Ratskeller. The ambiance is rather like an old English or Irish pub, nothing fancy, a little worn from years of use, but comfortable. The menu offerings are interesting, prepared by a chef, and well-presented. I had the club salad, which was excellent. And the luncheon conversation was intriguing thanks to cousin Doug Ford, Assistant to the Dean of the College of Health and Human Development, and his boss Fred, the Dean. Pam, Doug, and Fred regaled me with Penn State stories past and present while we ate our delicious meal. Anyone visiting State College or the Penn State campus there should definitely plan a meal at The Ratskeller.

OK, that's it for this segment of my trip. Stay tuned.

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I enjoy good writing by writers and poets who are not famous. My mother said I was born a hundred years too late. The older I get, the more I realize how right she was.

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