Can you believe your eyes?

Seeing something with your own eyes is proof. Right? At one time or another, most of us have said: “Seeing is believing.” or “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Drifts pile 20-30 feet high - ideal for sledding and snowboarding.

Drifts pile 20-30 feet high – ideal for sledding and snowboarding.

We’ve also said the opposite when reality goes against what we know or believe to be true – “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

I experienced a disconcerting disconnect between my eyes and brain when I visited White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Encompassing 275 acres of desert, White Sands is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.

Coming out of the snowy Midwest as I’d done, my brain was conditioned to to see white as snow. To expect cold. To be wary of ice.

Prefer to sled barefoot? Snowboard in shorts? Try White Sands.

Prefer to sled barefoot? Snowboard in shorts? Try White Sands.

As I drove further into the park, leaving vegetation behind, the 20-30-foot high drifts of white looked like snow. I grabbed a coat as I got out of my car only to remember it was 70 degrees out.

Graders cleared the roads, scraping away drifts of white, leaving packed white surfaces. I touched my brakes lightly lest I skid off the road at the next curve. I accelerated with great caution fearful my wheels would spin out.

White Sands National Monument - Silhouette

Reality is distorted in White Sands.

Visitors to the dunes did nothing to clarify. Barefoot kids in shorts played at winter sports, sledding and snowboarding off the steep dunes.

As a writer, I often draw on my own experiences for emotion and sense. My time at White Sands gave me a whole new well of disorientation from which to draw.

Even though I was in the park for five hours, I never did reconcile the reality of what was there with what my mind believed to be true.

I really could not believe my eyes.

What’s the value of taking a closer look?

“You have got to be kidding,” I whispered when I drove past the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo, Texas. The famous line of ten Cadillacs planted front bumpers in the ground and rear bumpers in the air was barely visible in the distance.

A tribute to America's love of driving?

A tribute to America’s love of driving?

I shook my head, unable to believe I’d driven 75 miles out of my way to see this landmark. Another sucker, I thought as I made a U turn at the next I-40 exit, back tracked on the frontage road, left my car on a cold, grey day, and trekked a quarter mile across a barren field to look more closely.

The nearer I came, the more intrigued I grew. The cars began to pop with color and texture, with messages left by previous pilgrims to this shrine. The rusted out cars were so covered with spray paint the surfaces bubbled like lava. It was not unrealistic to question whether the cars could have remained upright sans paint. Graffiti memorialized Mom, love, and messages of dubious intent.

Cadillacs as sculptures.

Cadillacs as sculpture and writing lesson.

From a distance the Cadillac Ranch was a big nothing. Close up, it was a fascinating essay in excess, in silliness, in commentary on America.

As I walked around each car, marveling at what these monoliths say about all of us who came there, I realized Cadillac Ranch stands as a tribute to one of my first writing instructors, Mary Kay Shanley. Mary Kay always exhorted us to take a smaller picture, to take a closer look. She gave huge assignments, all to be completed in no more than 250 words.  

Mary Kay would have us write about the Cadillac Ranch, but tell an entire story by focusing on one car. One axle. One wheel. In 250 words.

From a distance, Cadillac Ranch underwhelms.

Cadillac Ranch from a distance

Her assignments were not exercises in the impossible, though sometimes they felt like that. Her point was that if you focused small, zeroing in on the core points that really mattered, choosing each word with care, you could convey more meaning with greater effect in 250 words than if you used three times as many words without care.

With the right 250 words, you’d feel as though you knew the Cadillac Ranch even if you’d never been there. That lesson is one I’ve always remembered. Thanks to Mary Kay for drumming that concept into my head. Thanks to the Cadillac Ranch for a timely reminder.

If you visit:

If you happen to pass through Amarillo, take a half hour and stop at Cadillac Ranch. It’s better up close – just like good writing. And take a can of spray paint. It’s encouraged.

For a even more pleasure:

Sign up for Mary Kay Shanley’s newsletter, Words & Other Worthy Endeavors. Whether you write or not, you’ll enjoy spending time with Mary Kay. Her website is under construction at the moment, but you can reach her through LinkedIn.

Soaking in natural beauty

Some places encourage – perhaps even demand – that a person stop thinking, stop talking, and simply soak in nature. Sedona, Arizona, is one of them.

I had the pleasure of spending two days this past week in the natural beauty of red rock splendor. A Pink Jeep Tour was worth the money as we journeyed to remote locations and learned about the geology, botany, and human history of the area.

I invite you enjoy some of the beauty, too.

Red rocks reveal history of millions of years.

Red rocks reveal history of millions of years.

View from the top of Submarine Rock

View from the top of Submarine Rock

Cactus frame red rocks.

Cacti frame red rock spires.

Cyprus tree may be a 1,000+ years old

Cyprus tree 1,000+ years old

Pink Jeep Tours get two thumbs up.

Pink Jeep Tours get two thumbs up.

Writing take away? It’s no wonder so much art is created in Sedona. Nature inspires me when I take time to absorb what it has to share. Then  I return to the keyboard refreshed and with new insights.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Marketing a book with a “Use By” date

This  cartoon circulated on Facebook, and I laughed because it hit me where I was. When I indie published Go Away Home this past July, I geared up for intensive marketing over the long term. I didn’t realize my new book would have a “Use By” date.Simon or Peter Cartoon

I published the novel through Createspace for worldwide distribution, and I also printed a quantity of books through a traditional printer to use locally because the per copy price was significantly better. I also printed bookmarks in quantity. If it took me a year or more to use up the supply, that was okay. It’s not like they were going to spoil.

Then Amazon Publishing came calling, acquired my book, and what do you know? Now there is an expiration date. I can market the current edition of my book and distribute the bookmarks until July. But when the new edition launches, the first edition goes off the market.

I can’t bring myself to recycle them. So, what to do with more paperback copies of the book and more bookmarks than I can use through my normal channels in the next five months?

This month, as I drive to Arizona to visit family and friends, I’m spreading the love with my book and bookmarks. In each town I visit, I find the public library and gift a book. In each rest area and restaurant, I hand out bookmarks and leave a few on tables. I feel a little like Johnny Appleseed, only I’m sowing the love of reading.

This is my idea of the day. Do you have ideas for other uses for books and bookmarks with a Use By date? Let me know. The clock is ticking.

Tips for being in two places at once

The magic of a modern-day book launch.

file0001820510540I’m not in the habit of defying the time/space continuum, but this month I’ll be giving it my best shot. July is the official launch of my World War One-era novel Go Away Home, and the month is packed.

My first event is a library book talk today. The week of July 8, I return to eastern Iowa where I grew up for three events. At the same time, I’ll be zipping through cyberspace making the first four stops on a virtual book tour. The rest of the month repeats the challenge with more blog stops and more in-person events each week. July’s last event (at least that I know about right now) is July 25.

Maybe the best I can hope for is not to meet myself coming and going. I’ve taken these steps to ensure a smooth launch:

  • Written four versions of a presentation that focuses on Writing History. It’s a challenge to anticipate what audiences will want to hear, but my journey from memoir to fiction with an emphasis on the historical commonality seems a good place to start. With four outlines in hand, I can adapt on the go as the presentation evolves based on audience questions.
  • Wrote a multitude of guest posts. Invitations by author/bloggers Shirley Showalter, Annamaria Bazzi, David Lawlor, P.C. Zick (July 9),and Christoph Fischer (Aug 4) to visit their blogs have helped me prepare for interviews, focus my thinking and get the word out. I’m grateful to them for hosting me.
  • Product in place. My eastern Iowa events are in towns without bookstores. Since I know from my memoir experience that people want a local place to buy the book, I’ve arranged with two pharmacies, the county historical society and a library to stock copies.
  • Media outreach. I’ve returned to my public relations roots to prepare media materials and made them available on my website. I’ve targeted pitches to key media for interviews. I’ve made sure local media in the geography surrounding my events have news releases and images well in advance.
  • E-mail marketing. On the theory that people who know me will be most interested in hearing about Go Away Home, I’ve sent a series of targeted e-mails to everyone on my list. The response has been encouraging and sends me forward on a wave of good feelings.

Modern technology is a wonderful thing. Without the Internet, wi-fi, and cell phones, this would not be possible. Time will tell how my body reacts to being in two places at the same time.

No doubt, I’ll arrive at the end of the July exhausted. During the month, I know I’ll have reconnected with old friends, met many new friends, and had a lot of fun.

I think I’m prepared. I hope so. But are there other things I should be doing? If you think of something, let me know. It’s not too late. After all, if I can be in two places, surely three can’t be that difficult ;)

How did transportation open up your world?

As a farm kid, getting my driver’s license was a huge step. Without it, the bus to and from school was my only option. With a license, I could participate in cheer leading, sports, choir, speech contests, and a multitude of other activities. A license was my ticket to the outside world.

Janet Givens

Janet Givens

Since she lived on the Kazakh Steppe, Janet Givens has been exploring cultural differences and how they are bridged. She’s invited me to her blog to talk about how transportation plays into bridging those gaps as they did for me growing up on the farm and for Liddie, the main character in my upcoming novel Go Away Home.

Transportation: The path between worlds: Carol Bodensteiner

Posted by Janet Givens on May 21, 2014, in Crossing Boundaries, Life, Travel

I’m pleased to have Carol Bodensteiner join us this month. But in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that for nearly the first year I was active in social media, I got Carol confused with Shirley Showalter. They both wrote memoirs of growing up on a farm, both had blond profile pictures, and both were from somewhere west of me. But I’d read Carol’s memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl early on, so when Shirley announced the launch of her book, Blush, earlier this year, and I realized she’d grown up in Lancaster, PA, I figured it out. 
I came to see these two remarkable women for what they truly are: twins separated at birth … (Read more)

How has transportation figured into expanding your world? Or restricting it? We invite you to join the discussion – here and on Janet’s blog.

Transportation – The path between worlds: Carol Bodensteiner – See more at: http://janetgivens.com/transportation-the-path-between-worlds-carol-bodensteiner/#sthash.pVZLCbLP.dpuf

A tale of two cemeteries

Wilmington National Cemetery

Wilmington National Cemetery

Every grave holds a story. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to cemeteries. So many lives. So many stories. Yet we know so little. Only tiny bits of information. Names that may suggest country of origin. Dates that attest to a life long-lived or to one cut short by a childhood disease or war. A line may suggest relationships: husband, father. We’re left to guess at all the rest.

In Wilmington, NC, we found two cemeteries that told larger stories of people as a whole. As we drove down Market Street, we spotted the pristine white stones and regimental layout of a national cemetery. Equally interesting was an historical marker pointing toward a Confederate cemetery.

At the Wilmington National Cemetery, we were fortunate to meet the cemetery superintendent, a former member of the marine corps. He shared that the cemetery was established to hold the remains of Union soldiers from the Civil War. Of the 2,039 Civil War soldiers interred, 698 are known and 1,341 are unknown.

The stones of black soldiers who fought in the war are marked “U.S.C.T” – United States Colored Troops. The officers who led these colored troops were white. Their stones also say U.S.T.C. You can tell they were white men because their stones also include an officer rank. Black men were never officers.

The cemetery also includes the remains of a group of Puerto Rican laborers who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Stones tell the stories of men and women who served in subsequent wars: Korea, Vietnam, World War I and World War II.

The cemetery is full or almost so. Family members may still be interred in the same graves as their service men and women.

Oakdale Cemetery

Oakdale Cemetery

We moved on to the Oakdale Cemetery, thinking it was a comparable space for those who fought on the side of the Confederacy. It was that and so much more.

When we drove through the cemetery gates, we realized we’d come upon a much different land – a cemetery unlike any either of us had ever seen before.

Driveways curved through trees hung with Spanish moss. Cement stair steps bearing family names led up to raised grave areas. Canopies over freshly dug graves told us this cemetery is still active.

Unlike the military-straight lines of the National Cemetery, Oakdale graves have been laid out following the curve of the land. The tropical climate of the area encourages lush vegetation to over-grow the stones and black moss to make even newer stones appear ancient. The apparent haphazard layout of the graves and stones makes mowing by machine impossible.

Oakdale is designed in a Victorian mode. Sections were planned as a maze of curved avenues winding through the hilly terrain. Native and landscape vegetation interspersed by iron fences and garden furniture contribute to a garden look. In the mid-nineteenth century, people used cemeteries as parks where people strolled, picnicked and socialized.

As we drove through the cemetery, we did not think about this garden aspect. The gray skies and rain contributed to an over-riding sense of foreboding. We agreed the site would be the perfect place for a very scary movie.

While Oakdale does contain the Confederate Memorial Monument (which I realize as I write we didn’t see), the 100+ acres include much more. Within the cemetery are the graves of 400 who died to a yellow fever epidemic, a Hebrew section, Masonic and Odd Fellows sections, and the graves of political, business and social leaders. Notable among those buried at Oakdale are: a female Confederate spy, North Carolina’s first governor, and broadcaster David Brinkley.

Every grave told a story. These cemeteries did, too.

Bears, turkeys, deer & butterflies

Great Smoky Mountains make “amazing” an overused word

My friends told us to keep our eyes peeled for wildlife as we drove along the Cades Cove loop in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. We could see deer and wild turkey. If we were really lucky, we might spot a bear. Cars stopped along the road would be a sign something was up.

Black bear and cubs

Black bear and cubs

We hadn’t been in the park a half hour before the first cluster of cars brought us to a stop. We searched in the direction all the cameras pointed and spotted a black bear foraging in the leaves, digging for something to eat. The bear was a good distance away and paid us no mind. How exciting to check bears off our wildlife list so early in the day. Amazing, we said, and drove on.

In quick succession, we spotted turkey in an open field and deer in the woods.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove

We drove on, stopping periodically to see the log cabins and churches of the people who settled in Cades Cove in the 1800s. The valleys traded beautiful views, abundant clear water, and plentiful wildlife in exchange for what must have been a hardscrabble living scratched from rocky fields.

The first settlers in Cades Cove

The first settlers in Cades Cove

The cemetery stones told us stories of the first settlers, wars fought, and the challenges of living past childbirth.

We hiked to a waterfall. Five miles roundtrip, over log bridges, up increasingly steep hills. Billed as a moderate hike, I realized the past few months of more limited activity due to my broken wrist have taken their toll. The waterfall was beautiful, though, and the diversity of wild flowers, tiny black rat snakes and startling blue-tailed lizards were a bonus.

Great Smoky Moutain, Cades Cove, church, cemeteryBack in the car we continued the loop only to be stopped by another cluster of cars. A woman gestured “five” and waved toward the woods. We scanned the trees and were rewarded with a mother bear followed by two cubs. They were coming toward us. I had my window down and camera clicking.

The mama bear kept coming. Without a look in our direction, she sauntered across the road and climbed the hill on the other side. She looked back for a moment to ensure the cubs followed, then they all disappeared into the woods. Amazing!

My friends could not stress how unusual it was to see these bears. In their many trips to the park over the last decade, they’d never seen so many bears, so close. We drove on and spotted two young deer with velvet antlers resting in deep grass twenty feet from the road. From time to time, we’d spot deer in the woods. One bounded across the road amidst the cars. Wild turkey were abundant.

Butterflies clustered on the ground

Butterflies clustered on the ground

As if we needed more to entertain us, clouds of butterflies were everywhere. As we headed out of Cades Cove at the end of the day, we were rewarded with one last bear sighting. He was quite a ways away, but the now familiar black against green was easy for us all to spot. The crowd of stopped cars helped.

Whether it was the pleasant temperatures or the time of year or serendipity, who can tell? But the day, the weather, the wildlife, were all amazing.

Thelma & Louise hit the road again

Can't pass up a big chair

Can’t pass up a big chair

You know you’re in the south when …

  • The people at the next table are drinking Coca Cola for breakfast
  • Dairy Queen serves the best biscuits and gravy for breakfast
  • Corn pudding is a side dish option for lunch
Berea, Kentucky combines art and history.

Berea, Kentucky combines art and history.

My friend Sue and I have hit the road – just like and nothing like – Thelma & Louise. We plan to have some fun, enjoy the sights of the southeastern states, see some friends, and relax on the North Carolina beach. So far we’ve traversed six states: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

A great night for a boat ride.

A great night for a boat ride.

We’ve met interesting people – the woman at breakfast for instance – who told us more than we wanted to know about southern food and who used way more words than anyone should that early in the morning.

Captain Paul pilots us out of Honahlee

Captain Paul pilots us out of Honahlee

We’ve explored art and history in Kentucky.

We’ve reprised the big chair theme from a trip to California.

We’ve enjoyed an evening of boating with friends Nan and Paul and spectacular food at the Lakeside Tavern.

Today we’ll tour in the Smoky Mountain National Park.

Honky-tonks, hitchhikers, and hell-raising are not on our list.

The Art of War – The Art of Loving

Movies, reading & walking across Iowa uncover surprising connections.

Art and history, love and war intersect as I continue my virtual trek across Iowa.

There can’t be many who haven’t heard about the movie Monuments Men, George Clooney’s film about the men who set out to save art during WWII. Here in Iowa, we’re getting special insight because the real Monuments Man, the man on whom the movie is based – George Leslie Stout – was born and grew up in Winterset, Iowa, and later graduated from the University of Iowa.

I’ve looked ahead as I continue my walk across Iowa, looking for just the right point to cross Interstate 80. (As though that would be really hard in my virtual world.) Nonetheless, when I realized I could pass through Winterset before heading north to cross the Interstate barrier, I thought why not? 

Now that The Bridges of Madison County (a book and a movie) has been made into a Broadway musical, and received some critical acclaim, I better see the bridges again before the tourists take over!

140px-34th_'Red_Bull'_Infantry_Division_SSI.svgAs I head toward Winterset, I’m enjoying other military history as I walk along the Red Bull Highway. The 34th Infantry Division of the Army National Guard, made up of military primarily from Iowa and Minnesota, served in World War I, World War II, Iraq and Afghanistan. The insignia of the division is a Red Bull designed by Iowa artist Marvin Cone.

As I look back on the titles that have passed through my hands this month, the overriding question is, What does it mean to love? Appropriate, don’t you think, since this is February, the month of love?

Setting the stage is a non-fiction work, The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. A psychologist, Fromm explores love and loving in 120 pages packed with explorations of love in all its forms – parents for children, brotherly love, erotic love, self-love and love of God.

Fromm proposes that true love holds four elements in common: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. The other books I read – both fiction and non-fiction – show how difficult it is to find true love,

Fiction

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – This seriously disturbing novel explores the idea that “Marriage can be a real killer.” In alternating chapters, we come to know the husband in real time and the wife through her diary entries. Did he kill her or was she kidnapped and murdered? The tension in this novel is palpable and all of us can only pray we do not encounter a love like theirs.
  • safe keeping sisselSafe Keeping by Barbara Taylor Sissel -  “My son is a murderer,” begins this family drama. Emily tries to say these words about the son who has given their family so much heartache. But she doesn’t believe it. Her mother love could never believe it. They just have to prove it. Sissel draws characters with depth and a plot with complexity. She is a master at dropping clues that inform and confound. Her cliff-hanger chapter endings compel you to keep reading. (I was fortunate to receive an advance review copy. The novel is due out in late March.)

Non Fiction

  • Twelves Years a Slave by Soloman Northrup – I have yet to see the movie and I grabbed  the e-book when it I saw it in a promotion. This first-person account of a free black man who is kidnapped and thrown into slavery causes one to despair of man’s inability to love his fellow man.

Late-breaking news (literally): I end this post abruptly because winter has taken its toll. I slipped on the ice and broke my wrist. As a result, I am reduced to typing with one finger, so my blog will be on hiatus for a few weeks. When I return, I trust spring will be here. In the meantime, happy reading and safe walking!