Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Where your heart is, there is your treasure also....


Or maybe it's vice versa. Without looking up that particular Bible verse, I can't be certain.

One of my many bios circulating about on books or websites states I love the plains and Kentucky mountains in equal measure. Both are "home" to me.

While living in the mountains of Kentucky I longed for the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, the winds that blow here almost daily, the often violent demarcation of seasons, the smell of sweet clover and ripe wheat or corn silage simmering in silos. Nowhere on earth does crisp, snow-washed winter air smell as sweet as it does here in the plains.

Now I'm in the plains and grieving for the rugged terrain of my southeastern Kentucky mountains. I especially miss those spectacular morning and evening fogs, creeping fingerlike through hollers, suffusing forests in shrouds of white, and streaming straight up into the air from caves. And I miss those cold Kentucky rains memorialized in song by Elvis.

The ideal would be to own houses in both the plains and mountains, but interstate travel is daunting and I'm not as adventuresome as I once was. My adventures today are travels of the mind and spirit, savoring moments and memories. Today I look out the window to my left and see limbs bowed with the weight of apricots. At this very moment in Kentucky, the dogwoods are in bloom and morning fog is swirling skyward in the sunlight. I'm blessed to have two homes and a mind that will transport me instantaneously between both places.

Home is where my heart is, here or there, wherever memories, friends, and loved ones live. My treasure lies at both ends of a rainbow that arcs between two places.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Esther Clara's thoughts on celebrating Memorial Day



With Memorial Day so near at hand, I'm thinking of my grandparents and the years we decorated graves together. They always called it Decoration Day, even after the name was changed and it became an official weekend.

Every notion I have about the holiday that has become the harbinger of summer, I learned from them. Grandma was a pro at decorating graves. She'd learned the art from her mother. Now Grandma Esther Clara's mother was not a frivolous woman in any way, shape, or form. Everything she did was for a valid reason and she wasn't too bashful to share those reasons when pressed. In her own words, here is what my grandma passed along to me about Decoration Day when I was a pup: (following quote taken from My Name is Esther Clara, Grandma's memoir)

"One of my responsibilities as a girl was gathering bouquets from Ma's flowers to decorate the family members, friends, and veterans who had passed on. Each bouquet had to contain roses, peonies, and iris in full flower, plus fat buds not yet ready to burst into bloom. Ma said that way her bouquets would look pretty longer at the gravesites. I cut the stems carefully with a sharp kitchen knife, just the way she taught me, so as not to bruise or strip them. Each bouquet was then arranged in cans or jars she saved for just that purpose.

Decorating graves was an all day job, traveling in our wagon to cemeteries for miles around the home place. Ma got up early and fried chicken, which we ate along the way with her big soft biscuits. We also took a jug of water in case anyone got thirsty. One year when they got roped into loading flowers in the wagon, my brothers teased Ma about 'decorating every grave in Cherokee County.' She gave them the straight mouth while thinking on a snappy comeback. What she finally said stuck with me.

'The graves I decorate may not be veterans, but they're the relatives of veterans. The War Between the States is not the only war this country ever fought. The fallen of this country go back several generations.'

That made a lot of sense to me. By honoring a veteran's relative, in a way we honor him too. Why shouldn't we honor the relatives of men buried in long-forgotten graves in places we might never see?

Maybe modern folks don't have the same sense of collective memory we had in past generations. By that I mean the spirits of their pasts may not influence them so strongly in the present. Maybe life gets in the way and visiting cemeteries is far down on their list of priorities. Or maybe the government changing Decoration Day to Memorial Day and designating it a three-day weekend changed the viewpoint from honoring our dead to having time off work. My belief is that the influence of people dead and gone made us what we are as a country, and as humans. Putting flowers on their graves in tribute one day a year is no sacrifice at all."

As always this time of year I think of Grandma and Grandpa and those hot days we spent delivering flowers to every cemetery in Marshall County Kansas. They offered their floral bouquets with reverence, laughed, cried, and reminisced about lost friends and loved ones. This time of year has always been and will always be one of remembering my friends and relatives resting beneath the sod of many states. Too many of the people I love are gone, but surely not forgotten.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Dispatches from Kansas

Some of you who read my blogs know I am a book reviewer in addition to author. I've been reviewing for five years now, for various online and hard copy journals. Today, in my ongoing effort to do more here than simply shameless self-promotion, I'm posting the review of a wonderful book I read recently. I won't be doing this often, but since Tom is a fellow blogger and Kansan, and because his book presents a realistic view of Kansas, I'm making an exception. So without further gabbing from me, here is the review of Dispatches From Kansas by Tom Parker:

Dispatches From Kansas
by Tom Parker
ISBN 1-4196-1368-5

On rare occasion, I discover a writer whose lyrical prose style stuns me to silence. "Stun" is the key word here – stunning stories so beautifully told I contemplate them, relish the words, and stare off into space as if struck dumb in appreciative silence. Tom Parker is one of a handful of writers whose name has joined that list of the uncommonly gifted.

Tom Parker is not a native but believes Kansas is one of America's best-kept secrets. He and his wife Lori moved to Kansas from Colorado several years ago when they had wearied of sprawling cities and corporate ladders going nowhere. He's been waxing eloquent about tall grass prairies, Kansas towns and people in his newspaper columns ever since. This book is a random sampling from his column of the same name. One excerpt from one column states Parker's sentiments clearly:
"What's wrong with Kansas? I leave work as the sun becomes airborne. Mist chokes the valleys, shadowed yet by dense woods. The road slips into a slight depression and then rises and the Blue River Valley spreads before me as far as the eye can see, a verdant channel winding southward between grassy bluffs. The road descends and leaps the river and curves into town.
I stand on my front porch, the song of dickcissels calling the sun up. A cuckoo cries behind me. Warily eyeing me, a cottontail sucks down a long dandelion stem."

Life in the prairies has been peaceful and Parker is not hesitant to share the divine he sees in everything around him. Birdsong is surreal and ghostly in early morning fogs along the rivers and streams. Thunderstorms are awesome, electric, transforming. Winter winds roar from the north to rattle windows, freshen air, and freeze nose hairs. Dwelling in the plains requires a sense of humor and a hardy spirit. Amidst nature's bounty, the Parkers discovered mysteries of daily life in rural Kansas: the art of waving at everyone you meet; the odd case of the clairvoyant cashier; the joy and adventure to be found in following grain elevators home; anti-terrorist plans, rural Kansas style. Parker's delight with his new home is obvious, with the exception of ticks, mosquitoes, and grasshoppers.

Tom Parker shares his Kansas experiences with subtle exaggeration, gentle irony, and incredible poignance. He salves occasional bouts of blind despair and dark depression with daily doses of nature. In his world, Nature is a blessing and a balm. And because he shares his vision generously with an honest spirit, readers will enjoy his stories whether they live in Kansas or not. Tom Parker's writing is exceptional and Dispatches from Kansas is highly recommended.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Starving artists, writers, and poets...

Why do a tiny smattering of creative people gain fame and glory while others languish in obscurity? Is it the luck of the draw? Do Universal Powers or God, or the Fates smile on one arbitrarily while leaving others scrambling in the mire of anonymity? If talent alone is the yardstick by which creative people are measured, some people I know would be icons instead of unknowns. Today I'm thinking of several people who may not be exactly starving, but probably receive less attention than they deserve for their creative work.

Dee Rimbaud is a writer, poet, and artist whose dream is to travel and gain new insights to expand his creative vision. Everywhere he turns, it seems, his hopes and plans are thwarted, complicated by happenings beyond his control. I wish Fortune would decide to smile on Dee for once. If you are the least bit curious about the man, http://www.thunderburst.co.uk is his website. If you enjoy modern art, Rimbaud is your man. Dee's is one of the blogs I read, by the way, and is listed under my blog links.

Fellow traveler Aston West, whose alter ego is Midwestern Writer Wannabe, is another unsung hero. Hero is the operative word here. Aston and Wannabe are quiet, unassuming, self-effacing guys who tackle life with dogged determination. They create from a core of strength fed by their own live-and-let-live philosophy. You won't find this twosome shafting or trashing other writers to get ahead. They prefer honest achievements, earned through honest labor. Wannabe is one of my favorite writers and Aston is every inch the compelling hero. Visit my two heroes at http://astonwest.blogspot.com/ or http://midwesternwriter.blogspot.com/

Some people don't like to wade through long drawn out blogs so I'll end this one now and write more another day.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Contemplations.....perspectives

This past week has been one of ups and downs, highs and lows, good news and bad. In other words, life is conducting business as usual. In the midst of accompanying my youngest sister to the outpatient department while she had test after test after test, that wonderful book signing in Frankfort got sandwiched in somehow. The medical testing did not turn out as well as the book signing.

According to two doctors so far, my sister's colon cancer might have been growing silently and symptomless for years. Ten or fifteen years. It might have started out as a polyp and gradually transformed itself. Hearing that, I thought back to the years she worked as a nurses aide in long term care. She labored 12-16 hours a day for minimum wage and certainly no health insurance. When that labor intensive job became too much, she washed dishes in a restaurant, again for minimum wage and no benefits. No health insurance. Was the cancer growing then, undetected, because even the most rudimentary medical testing cost too much? How much does a colonoscopy cost? My guess: it is far more than most people without health insurance can afford. And even if a person has health insurance, without symptoms or a strong family history, most plans won't pay for screening tests.

If you haven't struggled to survive financially, let me remind you of the age-old hierarchy of needs. Food to nourish and sustain life, clothing to protect the body, and shelter to keep us safe from the weather are necessities. Nowhere in that hierarchy is the christ-awful cost of said food, clothing, and shelter mentioned. Nor is the cost of medical screening or treatment mentioned.

Some will say I'm a bleeding heart liberal. Others, who have their investment portfolios and the best health care available -- say, politicians for example -- will poo-poo my contemplations about hard working underpaid workers and their lack of adequate health care. Such workers have paid their bills, paid their taxes, and been a productive part of society all their adult lives. What about the citizens who, for whatever reason, cannot be a politician, rocket scientist, or heart surgeon. Do minimum wage workers contribute less to this huge, voracious, tax machine we call the USA?

My perspective is that fewer billions should be spent supporting the current despot of the day in foreign lands in hopes he will align himself at some future time with U.S. goals and schemes. Fewer billions should be spent on pet projects overseas that never seem to help anyone, here or abroad. And fewer billions and trillions should be spent on endless warring around the globe. That money would be better spent ensuring a healthy citizenry of America and supporting research to eliminate catastrophic diseases here, at home.

If my sister, for example, had been able to afford a colonoscopy five or ten years ago, she might not have colon cancer today. As it is, no doctor ever suggested that or any other screening test in years past. Why? Because they knew she could not PAY for it.

How many hundreds of thousands of Americans are in the same boat as she is today?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Frankfort KS -- library book signing

Of all the activities associated with being a writer, book signings are the hardest for me. I can talk with anyone about anything......just as long as the focus is not on me. When someone talks to me about me, my normally agile brain goes on vacation and I start stammering. Still, the Frankfort KS book signing was a delightful experience.

Frankfort is a pretty little town, nestled in the rolling hills of northeast Kansas where Highways 9 and 99 meet. As a child I visited my great-grandparents there frequently. Gathered almost every Sunday would be my grandma and grandpa, Mom and her little brood, Grandpa's brothers and families. Grandpa's family was a miscievous bunch of folks so there was always bantering and pranking. Frankfort today has progressed in the ensuing decades. They have a new library, for example, which is well organized and computerized. The physical layout is quiet, peaceful, and pleasant.

Alice Jones is the Librarian. She did everything she could to make my visit to her library comfortable. Alice wrote a detailed, interesting article about me and my books for area papers so the event had excellent promotion. As a result, a steady stream of relatives, friends, and strangers visited the library during the signing. My brother and nephew rode shotgun; that is, they chaperoned the entire event. Long time friend Jane Burkhead brought a breathtaking bouquet of spring flowers from her garden for the book table. Classmates Mary Long and Mike Simmons popped in to lend support and/or buy books. And I got to meet a writer I admire, Tom Parker, author of Dispatches from Kansas.

As an added bonus to an already lovely day, I met Nancy Schreiner, a relative from my grandpa's side of the family. I'm sure we have not seen the last of each other.

The event in Frankfort KS was my idea of what a book signing should be. I felt comfortable and relaxed in a pleasant environment. People purchased books if they felt like it, but chatted amiably if they didn't. I think book signings are not necessarily about selling books. They're about human interaction first and selling books second. This mostly unknown writer had a memorable experience at the Frankfort KS Public Library.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Other forms of writing to explore

I often speak of unknown writers and their struggles. Friend and fellow unknown author Eric Burton has discovered the ideal way of getting his writing fix. A few years ago Burton's book $oft Money was published. His book was a mystery thriller with government cover up and conspiracy at the heart of it. A couple years ago he wrote Conspiracy of Fear, which is still unpublished. Burton leans towards the political so when web logs debuted, he decided to give that form of writing a shot. His is a personal blog, on his own website. His political blogs have been picked up as editorials by the East Valley Tribune and he has recently contributed to their newspaper blogs also. Burton spares no one and speaks plainly. Here is an excerpt from one of his recent blogs, written May 9, 2006. I read this one after voting last Tuesday and thought WOW. The disparities between his subjects and the average tax payer need no further comment:

WHO AM I?
  • I assault police officers.
  • I drive under the influence and then get a ride home from the police.
  • I flaunt campaign laws and the law in general.
  • I write the laws that I flaunt.
  • I use federal employees to remove my things from my flooded home.
  • I eat at a cafeteria for free.
  • I can shoot a friend in the face and well….
  • I have my hair cut at a salon in the building I work in, also for free.
  • My healthcare package is top notch, blue ribbon and follows me to the grave.
  • My retirement benefits are for life and ensure that I will continue my pampered lifestyle.
  • My friends fly me around the country free (even if they aren’t my friends they still want things from me and I am more than happy to ride along).
  • I can cavort and golf around the world on someone else’s dime and call it work.
  • I don’t have to ever tell the truth.
  • I can have sexual relations with my employees during work hours.
  • I make promises that I have no intention of ever keeping.
  • I will kiss your baby then run up the deficit so your child will be mired in debt when they are older.
  • I send men and women into battle to fight and die, never having put on a uniform myself.
  • I can sexually harass, rape, have morals as low as my approval ratings.
  • I can make evil look good and good look evil.
  • I spend money, your money, like a drunken sailor on leave for the first time in over a year.

Who am I? I am an American politician.

Anyone interested in more straight-talking topics can check Burton's blog at www.elburton.com.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Beyond the DNA -- Discovering your Ancestors


Photo of Herb and Esther Ford, my maternal grandparents and the main subjects of their story, My Name is Esther Clara.

  • No, this is not an outline for a family genealogy search. Examining your heredity is more personal than that. The life experiences of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents contributed to what we are today as people, as a country. For me, writing about the lives of my maternal grandparents became a grand adventure. If only I had started decades earlier, while they were alive to share more stories of their early years.

    Since writing this book about my grandparents, many people have said to me, "Oh I just wish I had learned more about my parents' or grandparents' lives while they were still with me." It's not too late to begin gathering information. Elders of your family are a rich source of information.
    · aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, great grandparents and even their friends have memories to share
    · having the opportunity to share such memories can be a blessing for them and a gift to you
    · NOW is a perfect time for teenagers and young adults to harvest such memories while your older relatives are alive to reminisce about the past. Such history will become more precious to you as you age.
    · the more you learn about your relatives and the past, the greater understanding you will have of yourself and the world, and….
    · some day you will either wish you had learned more about your relatives when you had the chance, or will be very thankful that you took the time to listen to their stories

    How can you record the stories your relatives tell?
    · don't trust your memory alone. I relied on certain memories while writing about my grandparents, but memories often fade with time. Write things down in a special notebook you keep for just that purpose.
    · record their stories about the past on audiotape or some modern version of that
    · at family gatherings, videotape relatives who happen to be reminiscing at the time. ENCOURAGE their reminiscences.
    · the audiotapes and videotapes my uncle made of Grandma talking about her childhood and young married years were priceless sources of information when I wrote my book. If he had not had the foresight to record such stories, many of them would have been lost forever when she died

    If you decide to write a book about your ancestors:
    · your book can be printed off on computer and given to family members as a gift. This would be an easy gift at reasonable cost.
    · you can self-publish your book. This will cost a lot of money, but you'll have a professionally produced book
    · you can seek a traditional publisher willing to publish your book at no cost to you.

    Parents, grandparents, great grandparents – back through time – have contributed more to us than simply strands of DNA. Our beliefs and philosophies are often a product of their life experience. Learning more about their lives can open up new worlds to us and enhance our self-awareness.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Book signings galore!!!




Book signings are part of every published writer's life. Some call book signings a necessary evil. Others consider them to be golden opportunities. I've had book signings where flocks of people show up, and others where nobody comes. The book signings scheduled for me in the near future are golden opportunities. I'm so excited!!

The first book signing is at the Frankfort Kansas Public Library May 13 as part of the historic celebration of the Great White Way highway established in 1914. Since my latest book encompasses the time period from 1898 to 1989, it's a piece of history itself so will fit right in. My grandpa was born and raised on a farm near Frankfort, and he brought his new bride there in 1916.
I'm hoping to meet a few long lost relatives that day. And an extra bonus will be that I finally get to meet a writer I admire -- Tom Parker, author of Dispatches from Kansas and a blog of the same name -- and his wife Lori.

The second book signing will be June 3rd at the Marysville Kansas Public Library. I was raised in Marysville and lived there much of my married life. And my grandparents, memorialized in My Name is Esther Clara, lived in Marysville for 50 years or so. Marysville sits near the Big Blue River and has an interesting history. A ferry across the Blue served Fort Riley troops policing Indian Territory, and later provided crossing to pioneers heading west. Many friends and relatives live there and I'll enjoy seeing them whether anyone buys a book or not.

In the future I hope to arrange a book signing or signings in Iowa, my grandma's home state. She was born near Marcus Iowa, and also visited nearby Remsen Iowa many times throughout her life. A signing in that area would also be a golden opportunity to meet relatives I've never met, or haven't seen in years.

Book signings are not primarily about selling books. Yes, it's nice if people are interested enough in a writer's work to buy a book. But the joy of such gatherings to me is in seeing familiar, friendly faces on people who are glad to see me. Selling copies of the book is just an added bonus to the day.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Meet Joe Box......

A few years ago I met an unforgettable human named Joe Box. Joe is a Private Investigator and true Kentucky gentleman transplanted to Cincinnati OH. But a Mike Hammer clone he isn't. Joe is tall and a little gangly, not a bit stylish. Most of the time he doesn't know where his next buck is coming from and his lifestyle demonstrates that. He lives in an el cheapo apartment, drives a classic clunker, and his clothes look like he shops at the Salvation Army store. Joe's life experience is written all over the lines and angles of his face and flickers in the depth of his eyes. He's the kind of man you can't tear your eyes away from once you've met him, not because he's handsome but because he's so damn charismatic.

Joe Box may not look like much but he's rough and tough and hard to bluff. He knows evil and what drives men to crime and cruelty. Joe comes from a hard scrabble childhood and he lived through Viet Nam, sort of. For a big part of his adulthood he drank too much. Sometimes his hands shake just thinking about how a bottle or glass would feel in them again and his mouth waters just imagining the taste of liquor burning down his throat. But Joe stands firm because the ex-Viet Nam vet and alcoholic recently turned his screwed up life over to Jesus. His was not one of those easy, sweet and gentle transformations you read about in Christian magazines. He had to be torn down first, ripped apart and reassembled like an old stone building. I love Joe like a brother, root for him, pray for him. I want so much to see more of his delightful self effacing humor, to laugh at the southern Kentucky homilies he learned at his Granny's knee. More than anything I hope Joe wins the fight against those internal and external demons that want to see him fail.

OK, now I must confess. Joe Box is the main character of a series of books. But Joe is as real to me as any person I know. He's like Father Ralph in The Thornbirds, or Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath -- a character so fully developed, appealing and deliciously flawed that they never leave a reader's mind forever. The first in the Joe Box series has haunted me for several years now. The book was so entertaining, so surprising with it's flashes of humor and horrifying bad guys. And standing tall -- or trying to -- through every shattering page was the man I've described today, Joe Box. Even when hammered to his knees by life, Joe Box stayed true to everything he ever held dear.

John Robinson writes the Joe Box mysteries. He's one of those writers I envy, one of those still unfamous writers I talk about here from time to time. Readers weary of the same old genre clones, discriminating readers who appreciate good writing as well as intriguing stories, might find what they crave in Joe Box. And don't let Box's newfound faith put you off. Neither Robinson nor his hero are preachy types. Just the opposite, actually. Box has more rough edges than most Christians want the world to see.

And Hollywood needs to discover Joe Box too. Joe Box doesn't cuss his way through life like so many heroes do. He's not a womanizing rakehell. But Joe's life has more excitement, intrigue, danger, and action than Hollywoood will know what to do with. Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt probably would not be good choices to portray Joe Box. He's more a Liam Neeson type.

John Robinson's website is www.johnrobinsonbooks.com and don't forget to check his personal blog there. He's new to the world wide web and its potential, so be kind. I have the first edition of his first book in the series and nothing on God's green earth will part me from it. Robinson is working on a retitled second edition now and that one will have a permanent place on my bookshelf also. Like Joe Box, John Robinson as writer is one of a kind.

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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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