White Trash & Southern explores joys, sorrows of living

Collecting 232 poems spanning more than three decades, White Trash& Southern explores the beauty, joys, challenges, and sadness thatencompass life. From the book’s cover:

“Poetry in this data-saturated age is not, for most, a viable way to make a living. So why expend the time and energy to create something that few people will read and even fewer will purchase? To which I must ask, why do people sing in the rain, paint pictures, dance? Because it provides pleasure and reward and perhaps even keeps them sane. As a writer of fiction and nonfiction, I am most concerned with story. When I write poetry, I view it not as some lofty literary tool to fool or condescend, but as an exercise in crafting story within the strictest confines. White Trash & Southern is a collection of such exercises, spanning nearly three decades. To create a complex story within a limited number of words—to communicate far more than appears on the page—is a challenge that can provide enormous reward and satisfaction. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don’t. But at least I remain sane. Sort of.”

“With an eye for the particular and an ear for the music of everyday life, C. S. Fuqua shares with readers his brave and lyrical view of human experience. An unflinching examination of the sorrows and joys we experience while moving through the world, White Trash & Southern is a fine collection of poems.” ~Dr. Wendy Galgan, Editor, Assisi Literary Magazine

White Trash & Southern is full of empathy and honor for the human condition that we ultimately all share. This is a wonderful book of poetry, and a fine achievement that will greatly enrich its readers.” ~Devin McGuire, Editor of the Unrorean literary magazine and author of After the Hunt (Encircle Publications 2013)

“White Trash & Southern [by] C.S. Fuqua [is] gritty, insightful, humorous, tragic, and celebratory … [B]egin anywhere, skip around, or read it from back to front … a well-written, coherent collection … however you read it.” ~Jonathan K. Rice, Editor/Publisher, Iodine Poetry Journal

A good friend asked whether the poems in White Trash & Southern are autobiographical.

Yes.

No.

All of the poems evolved out of experience, certainly, but that doesn’t mean the events explored transpired exactly as detailed. Some did. Some didn’t. Some sort of. Many of the ideas came from other people. Some poems are simple exercises of placing myself in other people’s situations. An idea has a way of becoming more on the page, transforming into something completely different from the original inspiration and intent.

Don’t believe anything you read.

Believe everything.

White Trash & Southern is available in paperback, Kindle, Nook, and audio formats.

The Cooperative Option

Publishing has experienced extraordinary change over the last 35 years. I began writing as a journalist, first for newspapers, then for magazines, both on-staff and freelance. I wrote about sports, about politics and politicians, about laws made and broken, about things that affected people’s lives, but the writing was journalistic and strictly a vehicle for information, information that was readily available via other vehicles. So I turned to writing fiction and poetry, writing that enabled me to communicate more than bare facts, writing that allowed me to explore reality through fantasy, truth through lies. The most difficult obstacle, however, wasn’t developing a style or voice. It was finding a publisher.

Back then, self-publication wasn’t an option, at least for me. It suggested the writer’s work wasn’t good enough to be published by a legitimate publisher, which meant it wasn’t good enough to be published at all. Self-publishing required an extra helping of self-confidence and a solid bank account because publishing wasn’t cheap. Self-published writers were suspected of being well-off egotists, satisfying their vanity by buying a byline. It’s not quite the same now. Thanks to a conservative traditional publishing industry and significant advances in publishing technology, the stigma once associated with independent publishing has vanished

Traditional publishers always have been somewhat conservative in the projects they take on, limiting risks because getting a book to market requires substantial investment. As large publishers gobbled up smaller publishers, decreasing diversity and competition, they became even more hesitant to take on new authors and new ideas, resulting in today’s homogenized market of copycat copycatting. Occasionally, however, something new breaks through. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me come to mind, both starting out at small publishers where their works proved successful enough to entice major publisher backing, backing that set about exploiting every possibility that could be connected to the works. Success stories like theirs, however, are the exception rather than the norm.

Despite random breakthroughs, traditional publishers have systematically narrowed offerings into predefined marketing niches, limiting diversity and denying opportunity to authors whose work penetrates the boundaries. And the writers who do sign with conventional publishers find themselves saddled with increasing responsibilities once the publishers’ sole domain—promotion, design, production aspects, and more. In short, publishers once took care of business, and writers took care of writing. No longer. Writers today progressively are burdened with the bulk of pre- and post-publication tasks while receiving a shrinking percentage of their book’s net earnings.

Enter technology and the path to accessible independent publishing, enabling writers and artists to get their work to audiences affordably and without the assistance of conventional publishers. Technology upended the music industry in the 1990s, and now it’s doing the same to the publishing industry. Unbridled access, however, enables both the talented and talentless to publish easily. For conscientious writers, for professionals, some basics of traditional publishing must be retained and maintained. That’s where writers’ cooperatives come in.

Frustrated after thirty-one years of writing professionally for traditional publishers, I’ve joined with other writers, musicians, and artists around the world to form Cooperative Ink, a collective of creative individuals with decades of experience in traditional publishing who have decided to seek broader audiences for their work through independent publishing. Professional artistic cooperatives offer no haven for the vanity author. Instead, a cooperative’s strength is built upon creative people assisting creative people, from basic editing to book layout and publishing, from drafting news releases and development of conventional promotional avenues to managing social networking and personal appearances—all with the goal of providing a diverse variety of high-quality, professional literature, music, and other entertainment to audiences bored with the umpteenth version of the latest copycat darling.

A place will always exist for traditional publishing and those within who make their living off the work of writers—editors, marketing personnel, agents, etc. But technology now affords worthy writers once shunned by an industry insisting on conformity the chance to take their work economically and professionally to the public. Both writers and readers are far better off for it.

Please visit the Cooperative Ink website at http://www.cooperativeink.com as members release new work they’ve enjoyed creating, work they hope you will enjoy experiencing.

Enter Edward Herda’s World of Vaughn Frogg

When it comes to new music these days, it takes a special talent and sound to excite me. I’m weary of the fragile, breathless female pop voices, the auto-tuned dimwittedness of those who can’t or are too lazy to sing, and the half-whispered, near falsetto pretense of male “singer-songwriters.” When an artist with a distinctive style comes along, writing and performing songs that are both pleasing to the ear and intellectually stimulating, I listen. I listen with delight.

A few days ago, an email query came in on a guitar I have for sale. The writer made no mention of his profession, but his email address contained his URL. I took a look, and I’m glad I did.

Edward Herda is an LA-based musician and songwriter who recently released his first album, The Wondrous Folly of Vaughn Frogg. The album’s increasingly drawing attention—with good reason. Besides a playful charm that suits the stage well, Herda’s developed a distinctive vocal and instrumental style that pays homage to American roots music while exploring new directions in lyrical storytelling. Pigeonholing his music would be a disservice because of its appeal beyond any single category. It’s best simply to listen and go where the music takes you.

In a recording so intimate that, if you close your eyes, you can almost believe he’s in the room singing only for you, Herda and his band’s perfection on Frogg is satisfying and complete. The album features Herda on guitar, banjo, mandolin, baritone, and harmonica; Max Allyn on bass, percussion, guitar, piano, baritone, ukulele, and saw; Leah Kouba on vocals; Matt Bradford on Dobro and lap slide; and Diane Hobstetter on accordion.

Herda’s artistic endeavors include stand-up comedy, work as a creative director, and now music. He fancies himself a storyteller which is evident in his song lyrics, proceeding in unexpected, but logical directions that keep the listener guessing where his tales will end up. With Kouba’s haunting harmonies augmenting Herda’s warm vocal, the songs offer a new, and yet comfortably familiar sound. Each presents a self-contained tale within the album’s overall narrative, culminating in the final track, “Searching,” a contemplation on the quest to find one’s soul mate.

Frogg—alternative folk, country folk, alternative country, or whatever you want to tag it—is not for anyone looking to have music strictly as background noise. Herda’s songs, as he points out, are for “folks who care to listen.” Each of the dozen songs on Vaughn Frogg is well worth the time it takes.

As for the guitar sale, it didn’t work out, but that’s okay. I’m up in the game with the addition to my library of superb new music by this talented artist. But if you know someone looking for a collectible, unique Gibson LG-2 guitar, send her or him my way. A good deal awaits. (Update: That deal has been snatched up by a lucky fellow in New Mexico.)

To purchase The Wondrous Folly of Vaughn Frogg in CD or download format, and for more information about Edward Herda’s music and performance dates/venues, please visit his website at http://www.edwardherda.com.

The Depressing, Suicidal Days of Winter—Really?

The days grow dim and nights stretch long. Ads inundate the airwaves with buy, buy, buy, home-for-the-holidays, and expectations of family gatherings. No one escapes the bombardment of images and the 483,231 versions of “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”

No one.

With the constant barrage of images and expectations of gluttony and greed, the various news media chime in with story upon story detailing the dire effects of the season, how depression and suicide rates increase around the holidays. The assumption makes sense, after all. War (someone’s always fighting, especially in the Middle East), the pressure to spend more than a person can afford, pending family gatherings wrought with tension and conflict, dimwitted pundits condemning this or that group’s seasonal celebrations or word choice for good wishes—yes, winter is definitely ripe for depression, and depression for some readily leads to suicide.

As the season of insanity (Need proof? Go shopping on Black Friday.), of hopelessness and desperation, winter becomes the perfect setting for dark fantasy and horror stories. Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick certainly made good use of the season in the novel and movie versions of The Shining. Scores of other authors have also made winter the optimal setting for spotlighting the soul’s darkest corners. But do our assumptions about the season’s dark side pan out under scrutiny?

The holiday season in my youth was an opportune time for my parents to act out. They weren’t fond of each other, and holiday visits to each set of relatives provided them with excellent opportunities to explode into battles in their ongoing war.

Hallelujah, Christmas!

Then came the year my mother took me grocery shopping late Christmas Eve afternoon. When we arrived home, my father was waiting on the front steps with the story of how, while taking a bath, he’d heard someone sneak into the house. Through the crack in the doorway to the living room, he said he’d seen Santa quickly unload a few toys from his bag and flee. Later that night, I overheard my parents talking low in the living room about the true delivery of those toys and more serious matters. Their voices were strangely calm as they agreed on terms. On Christmas day, they separated. It lasted for a couple of weeks before they decided to give things another try. A few Christmases later, they separated for good.

Melancholy tinged winter holidays followed for a few years, and I bought into the myth that the season fostered depression and suicide. Perhaps you have, too. But statistics bust the myth to pieces. In fact, the U.S. suicide rate decreases during the holiday season, only to rise in spring as weather brightens and days lengthen. Psychologists speculate the winter decrease may result from increased interaction with family and friends who provide support that’s lacking the rest of the year. When moods bump up in spring and everyone returns to the daily greed and grump, folks subject to depression may feel worse because they don’t experience the same “normal” boost others enjoy.

That’s all fine and good, but where do the facts leave dark fantasy and horror writers? Would Jack Nicholson’s body in The Shining’s maze be as effective if the story were set in spring or summer?

Take away those winter myths in which we indulge ourselves, and what’s left?

Cold, dark days.

And that’s just depressing.

The Business

Samuel Montgomery-Blinn is the publisher/editor of the extraordinary magazine Bull Spec. Recently, I contributed to the magazine’s web-column, The Hardest Part, where authors contribute articles on the “hardest part” in bringing their latest books to publication. Contributing to the column was a pleasure and honor in several ways because the book, Rise Up, on which the column centers, takes its name from the story “Rise Up,” the cover feature of Bull Spec’s debut issue. It is always a delight to work with Sam and Bull Spec. Please visit Bull Spec’s column site for this article and more by other authors on “the hardest part.”

***

I am not a businessman. Nor am I a public relations expert. And I do not want to be.

So it’s no surprise after nearly three decades as a professional writer–newspaper staffer, magazine editor, and freelancer—the business of writing—manuscript marketing and book promotion—remains for me the hardest part of the process. That doesn’t mean everything else comes easily. Creative writing is work, no matter how many Joe Blows brag “I’ve got a really great idea for a novel I’m going to write as soon as I get a little extra time.” The talent for writing creatively, contrary to hot air declarations, is not developed overnight. In fact, most career writers rarely feel they’ve developed the craft fully, no matter how long they’ve been at it. But they understand and accept the devotion, self-motivation, and sacrifice of time with loved ones required in choosing writing as a career, forsaking pursuits that may offer more immediate rewards.

The ability to hook publisher or agent interest in a manuscript is a mystery to me, a tall hurdle to clear, and I’m astonished with each success. After all, an author must compete with an ever-increasing number of seasoned and novice writers by summarizing a complicated plot and months, perhaps years, of work into a single paragraph that delivers everything a publisher or agent requires to say yes, even though the book/story/article is probably no better or worse than the majority of its competitors, only different. Talk about odds… Once that first sale is made, subsequent sales may become easier—Rise Up, my latest book from Mundania Press (I’m quite proud the title story appears in the debut issue of Bull Spec) may have had an easier time due to an established relationship with the publisher and the fact that most of the collection’s stories have been previously published in magazines—but the business is rarely, if ever, a cakewalk.

The second hurdle comes after publication when promotional responsibilities–including those traditionally assumed by publishers—fall increasingly upon writers. Writers are now charged with securing most reviews, promoting through blog events, arranging signings and promotional events for which the writer supplies the books to sell (all once upon a time the publisher’s responsibility), purchasing and placing advertising, and more. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of hitting the bestseller lists—meaning most writers—promotional funds are usually a tad limited, crippling the ability to promote effectively. So writers must go after less costly opportunities, from the obvious free copies to reviewers in the hope of scoring a published review, to contributing to various blog events, to exposing the book to potential readers through channels such as my bimonthly newsletter, developed to promote my work and the work of other musicians and writers, regularly offering special perks such as free eBooks and music. Further, a writer must maintain a presence on social networks such as Facebook.com (crap) and Goodreads.com (excellent), operate an active, frequently updated website, participate in conferences, conduct workshops, and engage the press at every opportunity. For someone who shuns the personal spotlight, these activities are quite daunting, consuming precious time that could be devoted to producing new work.

Beyond the hurdles of manuscript marketing and book promotion lies the reward of engaging readers by providing what I hope is a story that’s entertaining and thought provocative. To personalize Rise Up, I include a short introduction to each story, detailing story inspiration or specific challenges encountered from the original publisher. Connecting with readers is something I relish, second only to the creative process.

As for the business of writing, I crave its elimination, an impossible eventuality. Of course, I could do an Emily Dickinson, shoving my work into a drawer to languish until I’m dead and gone, but that’s simply not an option. So what’s left? For me, it’s to continue the figurative pounding on publishers’ doors, enticing reviewers, participating in an endless array of promotional activities—in other words, doing whatever it takes to get my work into the hands of readers. And though the business is the hardest part, I refuse to cave in desperation and defeat. I love the act of writing and the engagement of readers too much to give up.

Character viewpoint based on “traditional values”

Understanding a particular point of view—experiences, histories, prejudices—well enough to create believable, three-dimensional, real characters is one of the greatest challenges in writing fiction. Problems arise when a character’s worldview drastically differs from or is in opposition to the writer’s. For me, the most challenging viewpoints are those based on “traditional values” that excuse characters from questioning their actions or personal beliefs. The characters, instead, cling to ignorance and prejudice, no matter who they hurt. In the short story “Contrition,” for example, an aging WWII Japanese veteran refuses to renounce the “traditional value” of racial/ethnic superiority that has led him during the war to torture, maim, and murder. In another story called “Responsibility,” an old man resides in a retirement medical facility, unable to die, miserable in senescent seclusion due to “traditional values” that have caused him to disown his gay son, an act that has driven the boy to suicide.

In the early-to-mid-1960s, southern schools were finally forced by law to integrate racially. It was a volatile time, with opposing sides vehemently asserting their points of view, destroying friendships and family ties, with violence always a breath away. Returning home one summer night before mandated integration, my father, mother, and I came upon a rural traffic jam just south of Montgomery, Alabama. My father pulled into the drive of a gas station bordering a field where hundreds of people surrounded a stage, the night ablaze with a giant flaming cross. My parents left me in the car as they joined the crowd in its hateful hysteria, fired by the litany of racial epithets streaming from onstage speakers.

Shortly before I entered fourth grade that fall, my father warned me not to talk to or associate with any African American students. But when I met those students, I began to question the traditional values I was being taught, values that enabled such hatred in the people I knew, values that were supposedly sacred but based only on personal religious beliefs and social prejudices. Other groups, I soon discovered, had their own traditional values. Every country. Every region. Every culture. Every ethnicity. Every race. Every religion. Every denomination within a religion. Traditional. Hallowed. Superior.

A local newspaper recently ran an article with the headline, “County Residents Reaffirm Traditional Values.” The story extolled local support of a corporate CEO’s decision to funnel company funds to anti-homosexual initiatives and organizations. Campaigns to deny rights to various groups is nothing new. Every year, every decade, every century has its societal targets, from Jews to Palestinians to women to Native Americans to African Americans to immigrants to homosexuals, and on and on. And everyone—from company CEOs to performers like Ry Cooder, with his Election Special CD, to average persons concerned enough to pay attention—everyone has the right to support any particular political or social initiative, just as everyone has the right to oppose those initiatives by boycotting the businesses or individuals who support them.

Only recently has it become acceptable and legal in most parts of the country for interracial couples to marry, a move that still irks the preachers of the traditional values I endured as a child. As acceptance of interracial marriage has spread, the values bandwagon has turned toward gay couples. The torchbearers of traditional values who once railed against interracial marriage now rail against same-gender marriage, justifying arguments on selective passages and interpretations of whatever holy book they believe in, as though their religion, their beliefs, their values are superior to all others and should rule everyone.

As a child, I listened to elders discuss “better” times when African Americans “knew their place” in society. They lamented the passing of days when even lynching was justified by the traditional values of good, God fearing folks. Today, that same kind of hatred continues to thrive, targeting various groups, from homosexuals, Muslims, Jews, and different Christian denominations, to immigrants and, increasingly, women. The rants are consistent and vitriolic, filling the airwaves 24/7, inciting action among the lunatic fringe of political pawns, action that results in assassination attempts, buildings bombed, planes flown into IRS offices, treasonous plots among radical military members, and so much more. Those values can even translate into acts of law that prohibit basic rights of targeted groups, from denial of healthcare or marriage to the return of Jim Crow initiatives.

One of the most striking and disappointing aspects of traditional values is the corruption of religious belief—the same technique used to vindicate everything from slavery, genocide, and separation of races, to attacks on members of other faiths such as Muslims by Christians and Christians by Muslims, laws that ban interracial and homosexual marriage, and forced submission of women—to name only a few. Many maintain that if everyone were governed by some supposedly god-ordained list of rules such as the Christian ten commandments or the Muslim religion’s equivalent list, then all would be fine. But do we truly understand exactly what we’re promoting?

The Christian commandments are pretty self-explanatory. Shout at your mother, argue with your father, commit murder, create “graven images” such as an artist’s rendering of Jesus or Yahweh, work on the Sabbath, utter “oh my god,” divorce, wish you had someone else’s car or money or whatever, have an affair, lie, steal—all these acts are strictly forbidden. What most promoters of commandment adherence do not mention is the punishment prescribed for violation—for good reason. It ranges from genocide for violating the graven images commandment to death for goofing on most of the others. (For a more comprehensive list of punishments of specific commandments, please refer to http://www.evilbible.com/ten_commandments.htm.)

Based on our personal values, we believe we can dictate what’s best for everyone else until we’re affected directly by one of those things we’ve previously opposed. For example, Dick Cheney opposed gay marriage until his gay daughter announced her intention to marry her partner. James Brady opposed laws limiting gun use until he was shot during the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. But some of us don’t change even when we excuse ourselves from adhering to the same values we’d force others to live by. Author Ayn Rand vehemently opposed programs such as social security, yet reaped their benefits even as she campaigned to outlaw them. Politician Rick Santorum and his wife Karen made the heart-wrenching decision to have a second-trimester abortion to end a pregnancy that threatened Karen’s health. Yet the couple continue to advocate for passage of draconian laws that would deny other women and families the same right they exercised.

Politics is one of the cruelest monsters to cloak itself in traditional values. To vote responsibly and humanely for the common good, it is critical to consult a variety of sources that present not only supporting and opposing viewpoints, but also unbiased accounts, facts unaltered by vested interests. Anyone desiring to be informed cannot rely on accounts from one broadcast network or newspaper to understand events, especially if that paper or network is a political tool, as many of today’s media are. I recently engaged in a political argument with a relative who employs his chosen party’s platform and a strictly personal interpretation of biblical texts to justify a racist, homophobic, misogynistic agenda. Certainly, he is entitled to his opinions, but he is not entitled to exert those opinions on others by forcing them to live as he would have them live. Our debate ended in a shouting match as we failed to respect one another as individuals, damaging the relationship beyond repair.

Because of that argument, however, I realized that my viewpoint is based on certain values that I’ve made “traditional” to myself, affording me better understanding of why characters I create, such as those in “Responsibility” and “Contrition,” choose such disparate paths. In “Responsibility,” the old man finally reassesses his values and their effects on others, and accepts responsibility for the rejection of his son that led to the young man’s suicide. In “Contrition,” on the other hand, the Japanese veteran refuses to abandon his traditional values, clinging blindly to his prejudice, rejecting responsibility for the evil he’s perpetrated, condemning himself to an eternity of suffering in arrogant ignorance.

The good thing about the characters in my stories is that they’re fictional. They usually reap the benefits or punishments of their personal karma. Some even come to understand and adopt the one “golden” value traditional to most religions and cultures: Treat others as you would have them treat you. In other words, live and let live.

Life, however, isn’t fiction. And live and let live is sadly the biggest fantasy of all.

The Willful Ignorance Factor: Denial in Fiction and Reality

He stands on the tracks.

“There is no train.”

The rails tremble.

“There is no train.”

The whistle blasts.

“There is no…”

Tick.

Characters in the fiction I write reflect qualities and values of people I’ve met along the way. One quality I find intriguing to explore is the ability to deny reality. Whether failing or frailty, we humans exhibit a propensity for choosing fancy over reason, the mystical over reality. That’s why I base so many of my stories in dark fantasy to explore real-world problems, views, and reactions, creating a speculative world that seems possible even though it isn’t. Through dark fantasy’s hocus-pocus, the negative quality of denial occasionally spawns positive results, and everyone lives happily ever after. But real life isn’t hocus-pocus.

As a species, we’ve advanced rapidly via science and are well on the way to verifying and observing the Higgs boson*, the so-called “God particle,” and yet many of us believe the Earth is no older than 6,000 years, that planetary alignment will initiate Armageddon, that God speaks directly to Billy Graham or Pat Robertson or Pope Benedict XVI or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Aunt Gerdie or Brother Jimbo because the great creator obviously supports our particular political and social agendas—whatever side we’re on; their god is always wrong—while shunning the rest of the world as it descends further into chaos, starvation, war, and environmental peril. Our television programming reflects our values in so-called “reality shows,” elevating the worst traits of our species into goals supposedly worth attaining. We’re a simple, narcissistic lot, and repeatedly we gleefully employ willful ignorance over rational thought and education. As long as we have our iPhones, a good connection, and Facebook, we’re content to exist in a virtual life and be led by liars who pander to our personal prejudices, even as we follow them off the cliff into the abyss.

Tick.

Time and again, like people you and I know, the characters in my stories deny the truth, even when it’s overwhelmingly indisputable, but how can a character deny facts? More important, how can we deny facts, especially when denial is against our best interests and will ultimately cause us pain and loss?

The U.S. in 2012 experienced its warmest spring on record. That’s a small fact in a sea of alarming scientific data. And yet many of us—perhaps a majority—are convinced that global warming is something one can choose to or not to believe. We can thank organizations like the conservative policy group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and fair-and-balanced news media for convincing so many of us that scientific theory—for example, gravity—is faith based rather than built upon empirical scientific data. While ALEC has convinced many state lawmakers to curtail air pollution rules and to teach climate change skepticism in schools, various news media highlight freak spring snowstorms as “evidence” that, if anything, Earth is cooling instead of warming, even though those freak storms are direct results of the very reality talking heads deny. Some states have even targeted renewable energy mandates for elimination, insisting on the continuation of wasteful, environmentally destructive policies that only exacerbate a rapidly growing quandary.

Do we really harbor a planetary death wish?

Tick.

Like those of fictional characters, our reactions to problems have severe consequences. The denial of global warming, for instance, has pushed the planet to a tipping point. Based on increasingly reliable data, 22 internationally known and respected scientists warn in a paper in the June 7 issue of Nature that climate change, coupled with explosive population growth and widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, is pushing Earth dangerously close to an irreversible change in the biosphere that will result in destructive consequences without adequate preparation and palliation. Even the recent Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, funded in part by the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, a source for backing conservative organizations and initiatives to dispute global warming science and fuel denial, confirmed to the Koch foundation’s chagrin that global warming is indeed a rapidly worsening situation, primarily the result of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. The project confirmed findings highlighted in previous accounts such as the 2007 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report compiled data from work by 2,500 scientists from more than 130 countries, concluding humans have caused most of the current planetary warming, with industrialization, deforestation, and pollution the greatest human-made culprits in altering the planet’s natural cycles.

The past two decades have been the planet’s warmest in the last 400 years, with 11 of the past 12 years among the dozen warmest since 1850. The average global temperature since 1880 has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degree Celsius), primarily in recent decades, according to the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The rise in the average Arctic temperature, however, is double the global average. And as Arctic temperatures rise, ice-melt increases, unlocking even more greenhouse gases now trapped in sea ice, permafrost, and undersea deposits. As a result of rising temperatures, glaciers and mountain snows are vanishing rapidly. Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, had 150 glaciers in 1910; now it has 27. Shorelines are retreating as waters rise. In one case soon to be followed by others, the populated island of Lohachara, where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, has vanished under rising water levels caused by global warming. And each year, increasingly bizarre and extreme weather worldwide makes headlines, from major snowstorms to vast outbreaks of tornadoes, from extreme droughts to massive typhoons and flooding. More than a million species already face extinction from current climate change effects. And yet, our political leaders conduct us in a chorus of denial that anything is wrong as they delay or prohibit action to remedy the situation because it might adversely affect corporate profits.

In a dying world, when does survival outweigh the bottom line?

Tick.

Willful ignorance is a considerable impediment for fictional characters to overcome. A few of the characters in my stories prevail, but most accept the truth only after it’s too late. The problem is the decisions we make in real life are little better than those made by characters in fiction. To make better decisions, we’ll have to discard the arrogant belief that we own this planet when, in fact, it owns us and we are simply squatters in time.

Like characters rapidly approaching the climax of a story, we have a quickly vanishing window of opportunity to act. We’ve arrived at the moment we must decide whether this planet is worth saving, whether the generations that could follow deserve the same shot at existence that we’ve had.

Tick.

The rails shudder.

The whistle wails.

Tock.

Farewell to India: A Study of Character

india nose 1Two questions usually come up during presentations: Where do you get ideas? How do you create characters? For me, ideas come from daily experiences, sprinkled with a good helping of what if. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. My characters are usually vague reflections of acquaintances, friends, and relatives, although rarely based on a specific person, but rather a composite of three or four people. Some characters, however, aren’t based on people at all.

In 1997, we purchased an Australian shepherd named India who bonded with us quickly. To our then six-year-old daughter, she became a reliable, exuberant playmate and companion. To the adults, she became a helper, eager to accompany on any errand or perform whatever trick or task taught. To each of us, she provided comfort with unqualified affection. Although the breed had been developed strictly for herding, India found cats and kids unwilling participants, but she enjoyed the romping, scampering, and playing as fully and jubilantly as any child. When left behind, she’d lie with her head between her front paws, eyes on the door, waiting for our daughter to return and the fun to begin again.

We lived in the countryside at the time, where leash laws were considered an infringement upon an individual’s rights (go figure). The neighbor across the street owned a golden retriever with the IQ of a nail and fidelity of a politician. Time and again, the dog had tried to rush me from behind as I jogged on the street. But when faced, it always ran. One afternoon, I went into the front yard to hoe away some weeds near the street while India waited on the porch where she’d been instructed to “sit” and “stay.” The retriever was nowhere in sight, so I got to work. I was on my knees at the curb, back toward the street, pulling up a stubborn root when India bounded past me. I spun in time to see her intercept the retriever in mid-air as the retriever sprang for me. The retriever was easily twice her size, but India did not hesitate to protect me.

I shouted for her to heel, and she immediately responded, but the retriever, not having made eye contact with me and in the fever of battle, now lunged for her. I stepped between them, hoe drawn back to do whatever needed to protect India and me. The retriever set, snarling and drooling as it prepared to attack. The owner emerged from her house, screaming as she ran to the street where she grabbed for the dog, breaking its concentration on India and me only to have it snap at her. I jabbed the retriever’s shoulder with the hoe, forcing it to retreat into its yard. The owner and I then engaged in a rather intense discussion, resulting in the retriever’s confinement inside the fenced backyard following the incident. The retriever’s conniving cowardice has since surfaced in several characters in my stories, but, more important, India’s brave and selfless nature has served as the basis for some of my most honorable characters.

In recent years, age took its toll on India’s health. She developed cataracts, muscle spasms, and aching joints. A few months after she turned 16 last year, we found a marble-size knot over her left upper canine tooth that had already fused with the bone. Surgery would have required removal of a good portion of her snout and mouth with no cure or extension of life, while chemical treatment would have proved useless.

Over the next few months, her abilities declined rapidly. When she barked, it was usually only once, more of a grumble than protest. The stiffness in her joints intensified, and on some mornings she could barely move. She slept more and more. Even so, she always became excited and animated when one of us would arrive home. And she still experienced moments good enough to play with one of us, wrestle with the cats, or chase her ball until winded. By late November, however, the knot had tripled in size, and she’d begun to experience dementia, staring at her food as though she didn’t know what it was, walking in endless circles, stopping in the hallway to stare and sway as though she’d forgotten where she wanted to go. Then the vet discovered a large mass in her belly and suspected more in other organs.

Early on November 30, India stood at the window from where she had watched the neighborhood for years, then bowed her head briefly and turned away. She went to each of the two cats, gave them a nudge with her nose, then walked to each room in the house, finally to our sleeping daughter’s bedside. She slipped her head under our daughter’s hand for a pat on the head.

Two hours later, she died.

I buried India’s body in the backyard in a place she favored in the final months of her life, a place visible from where I’m now writing. I spend a good deal of time looking out at that small mound of dirt, especially when I’m developing story characters. I recall how she loped after her ball, tried to herd cats and kids, played tug-of-war with my daughter, protected us from any danger with no concern for herself, and so much more. She embodied the best qualities in fiction’s most endearing and admired characters. Devoted, forgiving, accepting without reservation, reliable, responsible, India exhibited as basic instinct the primary traits we cherish in human beings, the most honorable qualities most of us only wish we possessed.

JD Fox releases Spooner Oldham tribute CD

Note: Spooner Oldham’s contributions to music are noted in Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie. For further information on Alabama Musicians, detailing the history of native Alabamians’ contributions to music and featuring dozens of biographies, please visit Amazon.com.

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Casual fans of rock and soul music may not know the man by name, but Spooner Oldham is a star among stars who’s now inspired Belgian recording artist JD Fox to release a tribute CD in honor of the keyboardist and his career. Born in Alabama in 1943, Dewey Lyndon Oldham, better known as Spooner, grew up listening to the usual radio fare for his time and geography, from Fats Domino to Jerry Lee Lewis, from country to gospel. In the late 1950s, he began attending the University of North Alabama but became more interested in the developing local recording industry. Oldham met fellow Alabamian Dan Penn in Muscle Shoals around 1959, and the two men struck up a song-writing partnership while Oldham began playing keyboards as a studio musician for FAME Studio, joining David Hood, Roger Hawkins, and Jimmy Johnson as the early rhythm section that defined the studio’s sound by backing soul artists on songs such as “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Mustang Sally,” and “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).”

By the late 1960s, Oldham had moved to Memphis where he and Penn continued their partnership, writing numerous songs that would become hits for the time and standard play even on today’s radio stations, from “I’m Your Puppet” and “The Dark End of the Street” to “Cry Like a Baby” and “A Woman Left Lonely,” among many others. The team wrote, by their estimate, nearly 500 songs, certainly enough to define a career as successful, but Oldham wasn’t finished and moved to Los Angeles to begin yet another phase in his musical life, playing keyboards for dozens of top artists over the years, including Neil Young, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Bob Dylan, to name a few. In 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Oldham to honor him for his long service as a sideman.

Born in 1957 in Ghent, Belgium, Jan de Vos, professionally known as JD Fox, developed an early passion for southern soul and especially for Oldham’s piano and organ work that became a defining element of music produced in the Shoals. Choosing to pursue a career in music, Fox served as drummer from the late 1970s through the early 1980s for The Machines, Belgium’s number one pop band, which recorded three albums, their first, A World of Machines, cut at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London, England. In 1989, he joined the heavy rock band Derek & The Dirt, recording three albums before his departure. In 1991, he became a singer-guitarist, combining American roots music with French lyrics, recording one album with the band Paris, Texas, and three solo albums. During that time, he developed an even keener admiration and respect for Oldham’s song-writing ability and recorded one of Oldham’s songs in 2004, “Genie in the Jug,” in French, an effort that netted personal praise from Oldham.

In 2007, Fox decided he’d had enough and said goodbye to the music business, but his love for Oldham’s songs led to him to contact Oldham personally. Reenergized by the keyboardist, Fox decided to record one more CD, this one to honor the man who had been such an inspiration throughout Fox’s life and career. The result is the newly released CD, The Roadmaster: A Tribute to Spooner Oldham, the title derived from Oldham’s song, “The Roadmaster.”

On the CD’s first twelve songs, Fox teamed up with Holland roots musicians, the Sunset Travelers. For the thirteenth song, “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet,” Fox lived a dream come true. “The icing on the cake,” Fox says, “was a trip to the Shoals, where I recorded [“I’m Not Throughout Loving You Yet”] with the Roadmaster himself. It was an honor, a privilege, and a thrill to sit next to him at the piano.”

The Roadmaster, Fox says, is a return to basics, celebrating Oldham’s songs by presenting them in their intended forms, with simple arrangements, straightforward production, and unadorned vocals. To hear samples and to purchase The Roadmaster, please visit CD Baby.

Michael G. Allen of Coyote Oldman

In the mid-1980s, I became acquainted with Native American flute music through the instrumental musings of Coyote Oldman, purportedly an Oklahoma-based duo specializing in “new age” music that utilized native flutes backed by electronic soundscapes. A few years later, I played a cedar flute crafted by Michael Graham Allen, Coyote Oldman’s flautist, and I was hooked. The sound that came from that flute was indescribable, a sound that touched something deep in my psyche. On a tight budget then as I am now (some things never change, especially for writers), I couldn’t afford the retailer’s price, but neither could I simply walk away from such beauty of sound. So I began researching Native American flute craft, but little instructive material existed at the time. Through trial and error and by studying various flutes I chanced across, I finally discovered a method for crafting a decent sounding flute—all thanks to the inspiration of Michael’s music and artistry.

Jump ahead nearly twenty years. I’ve spent the last year researching and writing a new book for The History Press, entitled Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie, which details the vast influence of Alabama artists on music past and present. In August, I submitted the book’s final draft, which (acceptably) exceeded the specified length by a thousand words. Around the same time, I learned that Michael G. Allen had teamed with David Lanz and Gary Stroutsos to soon release a new Coyote Oldman CD, entitled Time Travelers. Searching the internet for more information, I discovered that Michael G. Allen is not Oklahoma-based as I’d read many years ago, but a resident and native of Alabama—which meant that a book designed to spotlight Alabama’s musical innovators did not mention a word about one of the most influential pioneers of our time, an artist arguably most responsible for popularizing the native flute worldwide. After a few e-mail exchanges, the editor  allowed me to slip in an entry on Michael.

Michael began Coyote Oldman collaborations in 1985 with Barry Stramp, who provided electronic soundscapes for Michael’s flutes. Each album since 1986’s groundbreaking Tear of the Moon has further explored and developed the range of native flutes, each flute used in the recordings impeccably crafted by Michael. Time Travelers, released in October 2011, utilizes Michael’s handmade replicas of ancient desert and Anasazi flutes in extended studio improvisations with David Lanz on keyboards and Gary Stroutsos on Chinese xiao and dizi flutes to create an album that’s deeply contemplative and moving.

Michael’s interest in, research of, and devotion to ancient North American flutes began in the 1970s as he traveled throughout the U.S. to become a primary force in their reintroduction, refinement, and popularization. With few traditional musicians or craftsmen at the time, Michael learned to craft and play native flutes by studying and copying artifacts housed in museums and collections around the country. In 1981, he met and developed a deep friendship with Dr. Richard Payne, another researcher instrumental in popularizing the native flute. Payne had developed much of his ability in the 1930s, learning from Kiowa elder, Belo Cozad, who had been taught by Oldman Turkey in the late 1800s. Collaborating with Payne until Payne’s death in 2004, Michael became and remains one of the world’s foremost authorities on native flute history, craft, and music.

Michael’s handcrafted flutes have introduced a number of musical innovations, from tuned pentatonic, multi-keyed and bass Plains style flutes to double flutes and experimental flutes. His current efforts include the reintroduction of ancient rim-blown flutes to wider audiences both through his music and custom-crafted instruments. He’s available to lecture on the history of North American flutes at colleges and music events around the country. For more information about Coyote Oldman flutes and music, please visit the Coyote Oldman website.

Michael is one of the many Alabama musical innovators featured in more detail in Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie. In the coming months, others will be featured here, including Spooner Oldham and Belgian artist JD Fox who will soon release a tribute album featuring Oldham’s music. To purchase Alabama Musicians, please visit Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or any online or brick-and-mortar bookstore.