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An interview with time travel fiction author Shawn Inmon

Today I have an interview with Shawn Inmon, one of a very small percentage of authors who earn a living at this, and one of what might be a smaller percentage of fiction authors who handle time travel well. With his most recent release now out, he was able to spare us some time to answer a few questions about this dark art.

JK: So, Shawn, first please tell us how you got into writing in the first place.

SI: I won a writing contest when I was fifteen years old and was named one of Washington’s Most Promising Young Writers. I was sure fame, fortune, and Pulitzers were right behind that.

As it turned out, I didn’t actually publish my first book for forty-seven more years.

That first book was a memoir–an easy entry for many a first time writer. In my case, life had handed me a pretty terrific story–falling in love as a teenager, having that romance forcibly ended and rekindling it thirty years later.

It made for a can’t-miss kind of story that was easy to write. The hardest part, as Bob Seger memorably said, was “What to leave in, what to leave out.”

And it was one hell of a tale. What inspired you to transition from non-fiction to fiction?

I honestly thought that first book might be it for me. Then, when it surprised me and started to sell well, I decided there might be a career there after all. However, I only had one love story to write about, so I knew I needed to segue into making up stories. That proved to be the right move. Fiction is limitless, whereas if I tried to continue to mine my own life for stories, that could wear thin pretty quickly.

Yeah, and any life would eventually run dry. Not much interest in The Rock I Tripped over When I Was Three. Who was your greatest fiction influence, and how/why?

I think I’m probably more influenced by Ray Bradbury than anyone else. I loved his natural style of storytelling. It never felt like he was trying too hard, but rather that he just sat down at his typewriter every day and magic flowed from his fingertips. I’m sure he worked and sweated as much as any of us, but it never showed.

Also, he was so workmanlike. I suppose that could be insulting to an “artiste,” but that doesn’t include me. I’ve always tried to bring my lunch pail every day and just get my words down.

Plus, I think Ray Bradbury was a good human being and I so often agreed with the themes he put forth in his books.

When I was a teen, Robert Heinlein was my guy. He swung his opinions like a weapon of war. I was attracted to that when I was younger. As I’ve gotten older myself, I find myself returning to Bradbury much more often than I do Heinlein. All these years later, I’m envious of what he accomplished so consistently and with such apparent ease.

So did you seek to emulate those strengths when you took to fiction writing, beyond the very obvious one that the lunchpail approach is one that gets the job done?

No, I can’t say that I did. I never consciously emulate anyone, though I’m sure all the reading I did seeped into my pores through osmosis. I’m more likely to take an idea from a book I read–a trope, or a situation–and file it away for future use. I have dozens of situations stored in my brain and hope that my subconscious will hand me the right one at the right moment.

For instance, in my most recent book, my protagonist met an antagonist. The antagonist took an instant dislike to our hero. That was the extent of my plan for that character. Then, they got thrown in together and grudgingly grew to respect each other and of course ultimately became like brothers. That’s a situation I had loved in a previous book that fell into place here. My situation ended up looking nothing like the source material (which is a good thing!) but grew from it.

My overall favorite author is Stephen King, and although I never attempt to emulate him, I know his habits have worked their way into my writing. I so admire his ability to connect me to a character in just a few words. Unlike some readers, I love his little side trips off the main plot. The difference is, his side trips are often ten thousand words. I try to limit mine to just a few hundred!

How long have you been writing time travel stories?

I started my first time travel book in 2015. I initially published it as six separate episodes, then bundled it all together into a single book in July of 2016. That was intended to be a standalone novel. About halfway through writing it, my first reader said, “This is going to be a great series!” I had no plans for a series, but that planted the seed.

When I finished that first book, Lord help me, I added a single line at the very end: “Coming Soon, The Redemption of Michael Hollister.” I had no idea what that story was or what it looked like, but I suddenly had a series.

I published the twelfth book in that series last September. I’m taking a little break from it at the moment, but I am planning to write the thirteenth book in October of this year. Essentially, that series–The Middle Falls Time Travel Series–took up all of my creative life for about three years.

And it has been an enormous success, with compelling characters in conflict–the essence of good fiction. What drew you to the genre?

To me, it’s just so much fun. There are so many ways you can go about it.

The first book I ever started (and never finished) was a time travel book. I just didn’t know enough about how to structure a story yet.

Time travel lets us visit different eras, which is fun. I remember reading Jack Finney’s Time and Again and feeling like I had actually been in New York before the turn of the twentieth century. When Stephen King wrote 11/22/63, my favorite part of the book wasn’t about Kennedy, but just what life was like in America in the late 1950s.

Then, there’s the fish out of water element. What happens when we take modern man (or woman–I’ve written three books with a female protag) and drop them into a completely foreign time zone? Whenever I start reading someone else’s time travel novel or start writing one of my own, I am still in awe at the possibilities.

What were some early struggles or issues you had to confront about time travel fiction?

So many! To me, it’s so easy to go astray writing time travel. So many hidden traps that we can fall into.

I remember when I first told you I wanted to write a time travel novel, you told me what you often didn’t like about the genre–that events continue to play out the same, over and over. Whereas, we know that in reality, just because a person does or says something in one version of reality, there’s no guarantee they would do or say the same in another go-round.

I took that to heart. So, when my characters wake up back at an early point in their life, things are initially–the first few minutes or hours–very similar. The farther they move away from that reset point, the more things change, though.

That can be used for dramatic effect, of course. What if a character is counting on something to happen because it did happen in their first life, but does not happen in their second, because they’ve done things differently and changed the world.

Of course, there’s the whole issue with “What if I traveled back and killed my father before he conceived me?” Blech. I have avoided those issues by creating a multiverse in my series. Each time a character is “restarted” at an earlier point in their life, it creates a new dimension, so there can’t be any conflicts like that. Essentially, I took the coward’s way out.

In my new series, I am using a portal for time travel, a la The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. That also does away with that kind of conundrum. Someday, I suppose I should write the more prevalent type of time travel–get in a machine, or step through a wormhole, or something along those lines.

What would you say has been the single biggest struggle or issue?

For me, it’s been how to keep a series fresh over twelve books. My series are all standalone novels, so there isn’t one overarching plot line. That means I have to essentially reinvent the wheel every book.

The central conceit–someone dies with unfinished business on their soul and wakes up at an earlier point to set it right–is unchanged from book to book. My challenge has been, ‘How can I write stories that adhere to that conceit, without getting repetitive?’ I’ve done so by mixing up sub-genres within the main time travel genre.

For instance, the first book centers on stopping a serial killer from killing. It’s a cat and mouse game. The second book, which features the antagonist from the first book as the main character is simply a redemptive arc for him, if such a thing is possible.

Meanwhile, the third book focused on a romance–how many lives would you live to get back to the one you love? The tenth book was a murder mystery combined with time travel, which is definitely an aid in solving a murder. With the twelfth book, I set a special challenge: create a main character on the autism spectrum, then give him only thirty days to live, and require him to change.

With that twelfth book, I found that all my ideas were riffs on books I’d already written. That’s when I took a break to write the portal fiction trilogy. Now that I have, a great idea for a thirteenth book has arrived: What if someone doesn’t want redemption? I’m looking forward to writing that one.

I think quite a few people will be looking forward to reading it. Happily, you are prolific. Would you call time travel its own genre, or a subgenre of others (such as SF, fantasy, romance, etc.)?

I suppose it’s a sub-genre, although it could be located under either Science Fiction (if it is science based time travel) or Fantasy (if it is portal fiction). To be completely honest, although I call my Middle Falls books Sci Fi, they’re really not. There isn’t a bit of science in any of them. They would more accurately be labeled as Metaphysical Time Travel, or even Reincarnation, but Amazon doesn’t have categories for that.

The truth is, I just write the stories I want, then figure out how to market them later.

Who else is excellent at writing time travel, and what makes that author’s work excellent?

Probably my all-time favorite time travel novel is Replay by Ken Grimwood. Sadly, he passed away shortly after it was published, so the follow up he was working on was never published. Word is that his estate has been looking for someone to finish the book, but so far, no one has come knocking on my door.

In contemporary fiction, my friend Nathan Van Coops does an excellent series called In Times Like These. His books are filled with humor, adventure, and he does a great job at making the reader feels like he’s there.

That’s what I feel great time travel writers do: they bring you into a time with just a few short stabs of details. Some writers will do a bunch of research and then beat you over the head with it. Clever writers slip those details in as part of the story, instead of long info dumps. I love those writers.

There’s a big difference between storytelling and showing off, and plenty of writers seem not to realize that, I think.

Speaking of which: You’ve surely seen a lot of bad time travel writing. Not going to ask you to name names, but what are some of the tells that signal a badly done time travel story?

Thank you for not asking me to throw other writers under the bus!

The first sign to me is what I just mentioned–the info dump. If I start a book and the writer spends the first three pages setting the scene, I’m outta there. Too many books waiting on my Kindle.

With my new book, I have my hero discover the mysterious door in his basement in the first few thousand words. By the second chapter, he’s being dive-bombed by pterodactyl-like creatures. If it’s an adventure story, let’s have an adventure.

Of course, plot holes are easier to create in time travel than just about any other genre. I’m more forgiving of those, though, as I might slip into that pothole myself from time to time.

More than anything, though, I think the sign of a bad time travel book is when it’s more of a situation, rather than a story. I can throw a guy two thousand years into the past, but if I don’t do something interesting with him once I get there, it’s all for naught. All the elements of a good story–tension, conflict, goals and goals blocked–need to be just as present in a time travel book as anywhere else. So often, I find a writer will create a cool scenario, then not have any real idea what to do with it from there.

We all know that reviews can be ignorant, cruel, or quite frequently both. What’s the most unjustified type of review comment you see on time travel books?

I never mind bad reviews, really. If you go to Thomas Weaver on Amazon, the Top Review lists all the reasons people shouldn’t buy my book. (The book has 300 reviews, but that one stays at the top!) The thing is, I love having it there. The things she complains about (although she exaggerates somewhat) are things that other people will look at and say, “Hey, that’s for me!”

Occasionally, a reviewer will say something that flat out isn’t true – an element of the book that just isn’t there – but I feel like I’ve just got to move more copies of the book, which will result in more reviews, which will drown out the white noise of those few negative reviews.

I came to grips with the idea that not everyone is going to love what I write, no matter how hard I try. That was pretty freeing. Now, when those bad reviews crop up, they don’t hold any sting. The other thing is, if I’m just getting positive reviews, that probably means I haven’t done a great job of reaching a wide enough audience.

Initially, I try to swim where the water is warm and get the book to my readers that I know are prone to like it. Eventually, though, I’ve gotta toss it out there where there be sharks.

Which is a good outlook. But can you give an example, without singling anyone out, of a type of review comment you have seen often on a time travel book (yours or someone else’s) and thought, “That’s just ignorant.”? For example, when I see the snippy “obviously she should fire her editor,” that’s one of my own triggers. It says to me: “This reviewer doesn’t know how books are assembled.” Any category of comments like that, with respect to time travel?

Overall, I find that people confuse editing and proofreading. I think that’s because editing is mostly invisible. If an editor saved me from wandering down the wrong path, it just never shows up in a book. However, if a stray typo survives, that’s noticeable to anyone.

I think the kindest thing I can say is that there are different levels of readers out there. Many readers just want to skim along the surface and if they don’t pay attention and bump their noses against something because they weren’t paying attention, they may complain loudly about it.

I occasionally hear from readers who have put a lot of time into thinking about the concepts and themes of my books. Every writer loves that, of course, and I’ve had some enlightening conversations with people that helped me see things I didn’t even know I had put in the books.

Speaking of reviews, I have written an entire book because of a fairly negative review. It was on the third book in my series and the reviewer complained that my protag was too single-minded in the pursuit of his goal. I wasn’t put off by that comment, because that was a feature, not a bug, of the book. I wanted him to be single-minded to the exclusion of all else.

However, that review set my mind off on another path and I eventually wrote the fifth book in the series as an answer to it. Essentially saying, ‘Okay, you want a non-tunnel vision character? Here she is!’ I mentioned that in my Author’s Note for the book and the reviewer eventually got in touch with me. (He must have liked the series well enough to read at least two more books.) We had a good laugh over it.

Talk about abiding by the lemons and lemonade parable. I no longer need to ask you the question about “where do you get your ideas?” Because we know how authors love that one.

Ha! They do come from the oddest places!

The tenth book in the series came from listening to a sportscaster one morning. He said, “So picture this–eighteen year old kid is suddenly given fame and millions of dollars. You can imagine what happens next.” He was right–I could. It turned out to be a pretty good story, I think.

Of course the first book in the series drew from my own life. One of my cousins killed his older brother in a car accident, and I used that as the inciting incident in that first book. The serial killer came from my imagination, though. If I know any serial killers, I’m not aware of it.

And we’re going to keep it that way.

Since I’m close to the SF community, I talk to plentiful writers about time travel story concepts. What guidance would you offer a fiction writer new to time travel?

I guess to look beyond the setting to the story.

It’s always about the characters and the story. Do we care about them? If we don’t care about the characters, we sure don’t care about the book. We need someone to root for and maybe root against.

I just finished Blake Crouch’s Incursion. What an intricately plotted story! I felt my mind bending into a pretzel trying to keep up. It was exciting and full of twists. And yet, I forgot about it right after I finished it, because, for whatever reason, the characters didn’t resonate with me.

There’s a tendency I need to fight against, as well, and that’s creating “too” characters. Characters that are “too” good. Too competent, “too” whatever. I constantly try to remember yin/yang, and that there is a little of each in the other.

Yep. I see that all the time, the character where the author pounded me in the face with “this is the bad guy/gal.” Okay, I get it, now stop belting me with that.

You’ve got a new book out, one that looks to begin a new series. Can you please supply a purchase link, and tell us how your past work has influenced this new release?

Here’s the new book: A Door Into Time.

This book is essentially opposite of The Middle Falls series. That series is all about contemplation, introspection, redemption. This one throws a modern Special Forces member into essentially a prehistoric world, strips him of all his weapons, and challenges him to survive.

My favorite books as a young teen were John Carter of Mars, Pellucidar, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Mysterious Island. The problem is, those books were written 100+ years ago, so they are stilted in style and delivery by today’s standards. This book attempts to update that sub-genre of throwing a normal guy into an impossible situation.

I had such a great time writing it, and I hope that shows in the final product.

I am sure it will. Shawn, thanks so much for taking time out of your post-release schedule to answer these questions in such detail. Best of continued success in your work.

Thanks, J.K.!

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Please see the numerous links in the interview body for more about Shawn and his work. Others:

Shawn’s Facebook page

Shawn’s Goodreads page

Shawn’s page on Audible (most of his books are also available as audiobooks; he’s way ahead of the world on that)

Bank of America: blatant lying about Occupy?

I had to stop by our local B of A branch today. While B of A is pretty odious, so are most of the realistic options. (It’s not about the local employees. The branch manager is a complete sweetheart and her employees reflect her influence.) Outside was a security guard, playing with his doodad phone.

This was new, so while I waited in line, and the bank employee was trying to handle some of the transactions with people in line, I asked him: why the security? His tone was sanctimonious. “It’s because of Occupy. Two of our tellers were assaulted in Texas by four of them; one woman had a broken leg. This is to assure the safety of our female tellers.” It was in that kind of tone that says ‘You cannot dispute me unless you want it to mean you favor beating up women.’ I expressed skepticism, and that if that had happened, it was probably done by provocateurs–perhaps even police infiltrators. He asserted that they were in jail. I’d never seen this guy here before at the branch, so one suspects that he was sent to ‘message’ this to clients.

This being Bank of America, I knew it was entirely credible that they would simply invent a story. When I got home, I did some research. Two tellers beaten up badly by those ultra-violent Occupy maniacs (who seem to be most famous for being roughed up, pepper-sprayed and assaulted by police, not the other way around) would seem a pretty big deal. No one thinks it’s okay to beat up on bank tellers just doing their work, or coming or going from it. I searched the google string “bank of america tellers assaulted by occupy,” no quotes, to have the greatest possible chance to learn about this breaking story.

Nothing about any such assault. I found some about bank robbers assaulting tellers, but Occupy protestors are not bank robbers. Same terms into a news aggregator; nothing. I found nothing to corroborate this story.

Unless I find something to corroborate it (and if I do, I will update this, of course), I have to assume that the employee was telling patrons a bald-faced lie. Sounds to me like a slick anti-Occupy propaganda trick, depending mainly upon people being too lazy to fact-check. In most cases, that’s probably a safe assumption. If there really was no such attack, it would say a lot about B of A’s opinion of the public. It would also say a lot about the corporate values–not that most observant people would bet heavily on those, at this stage of the game.

Current read: _Carthage Must Be Destroyed_

It was the phrase that defined the middle to later Roman Republic as much as any other: the statement made at the end of orations by M. Porcius Cato (“the Elder”). Delenda est Carthago. Three wars, one semi-conclusive and two more to the knife. Some of the great figures of an ancient world: Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal Barca, Q. Fabius Maximus (“the great”) Verrocosus (“having a mole/wart”) Cunctator (“the delayer”), P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, and others. Phoenician culture vs. Roman culture. Trade and naval power vs. agrarianism and land power, mercenaries vs. citizen soldiers. War elephants vs. pila and gladii.

I’m not even nearly finished with it, but I’m enjoying Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles. Any attempt to understand Carthage suffers from a problem that is the first thing Miles points out: most of our information comes from non-Carthaginian sources, most of whom had serious biases against this non-Roman, non-Greek nation. We don’t really have extant Carthaginian sources from the ancient world; most were obliterated. We thus are faced with the historian’s challenge of evaluating sources, piecing together information said to be taken from them, examining the archaeological record’s findings, and forming a composite and credible image with as little incorporated bias as we can.

This is why I love ancient history, why I majored in it, why I continue to study it. We are challenged to use our minds to deduce and discover all that we may in spite of evidence that can be minimal, fragmentary, contradictory and elusive. We are further challenged not to conclude too much when we cannot, but to suppose or conjecture based on the most reasonable or probable reality in light of what we do know. Antiquarianism is demanding, never complete, and (like all historical study) benefits from understanding of all disciplines and sciences on some level.

What I like most so far about Miles is the rigorous level of critical thought on display. He doesn’t seem to have come to glorify or vilify Carthage, but to assemble honest understanding. I dislike works that seem to have begun with a conclusion and then focused on the evidence that supported it. Miles seems free of this flaw from what I can discern, as far as I’ve gotten. He could later disappoint me, but I’m not expecting that. I am anticipating a fair, nuanced, common-sense portrait of a poorly understood society that stood as an embodiment of all that many ancient writers scorned. They bequeathed that bias to Western historical tradition, and I relish seeing how Miles will assess the evidence to see where that tradition deserves challenge.

Some cold realities about getting published, for your information

This is adapted from an e-mail I wrote to a client, when asked for advice about publication and marketing of one’s own books.

Most of the publishing world is parasitical. It wants you to do all the work and provide all the content so that it can make most of the money. It operates on the principle of the remora.

Your decision is between self-publishing, small press publishing and New York. The main difference between the three is that with New York, New York gets all the money and also locks up more of the rights. Small press probably treats you more humanely and pays you a little better. With self-publishing, you keep all the rights and make all the money.  Also, with New York and most small press, they want ‘exclusive submission.’ That means that they entertain the fantasy that you should pitch it to them, then wait for a reply before you pitch it to anyone else. I’ve seen more credible fantasies in Penthouse Variations.

Notice I didn’t specify any actual benefits from small press or New York. They confer mainly the ‘I made it’ prestige/legitimacy factor, a commodity that is fading faster than the big houses want you to believe. They will mostly do minimal to no editing or marketing for you. They will do a cover for you, but they will inflict it upon you without much input allowed from you. They will typeset it for you, but they can screw up real, real bad, such as accidentally publish an early draft rather than the one you worked so hard to refine. (I am not joking. It happened to a pretty respected author I sort of know, Allen Barra. When I wrote to him to ask, “Al, say it ain’t so, how did this get so screwed up?” he wrote back and told me what had happened. Since I was writing a review, he insisted on paying to send me a copy of the right version. If I was going to write a review, he wanted it to be his best work, which is not what the publisher fricking printed. Unbloodybelievable.)

Suppose it sells for $12. New York will pay you $1 per copy sold. You’re still on the hook for most of the marketing. If you self-publish, you keep $12 per copy sold minus the printing cost. This means that NY has to outsell you 12:1 just to break even, and you signed rights away to them. If you succeed well enough on your own, publishers may come calling. I’d be careful. Publishing is a business. The main reason for them to call is because they want some of the money. The burden is on them to demonstrate why you would make more money with them than you are now, and that that is worth the rights you sign away. Many of them count on you being so wowed that you won’t read the contract too carefully, much less send it to an intellectual property attorney for review.

Your odds of getting an agent are minimal; your odds of a lot of terse rejections are high. Publishers at least sometimes act like you are also a customer, which agents know you are not. Just as many publishers want to buy the home run best seller that will make them zillions for no work, many agents want to pitch the easily pitchable book that will make them thousands for no work.

There are exceptions to all of the above. These are trends, not universal realities.

If it’s a non-fiction book, in order to pitch it, you need a query letter, a book proposal and a copy of the current Writer’s Market. If you don’t know what any of that is, you need to learn, because not knowing what that stuff is would be akin to trying to breastfeed baby and unsure where Junior is supposed to find the spout.

Edit: this piece prompted Shawn Inmon, the self-published author of a compelling true love story, to put forth his own perspective about self-publishing. If you felt this was worth a read, I think you’ll feel Shawn’s post is also.

Editing a book on child-raising…me, of all people

My current project is to edit a book on child-raising. This is funny.

Some of you may not know this, but I’m not real good with children. I never wanted to produce any; the day my ex-fiancée told me very seriously that she was pregnant, shortly thereafter revealing that it was a joke, ha ha, something broke inside me and I never trusted her again. I have recently learned that I can enjoy being around good children for about three or four hours. I can endure them for three or four more, after which I need a couple days in a bar. If they are relatives it’s easier, but only to a point. If they are not exceptionally well-behaved, it’s excruciating. In short, perfect kids about whom I authentically care are difficult enough for me. The other billion are rather harder.

I did not ask to be this way, and it’s not something I’m glad for or proud of. It’s very inconvenient to be missing the gene that says kids are inherently cute and funny no matter whether they are attempting to start fires, defecating in their pants, doing something that they have discovered will frustrate adults, or making a crayon drawing of your pet. My life would be much easier if I liked being around them all, and I have tried to like it. It’s like trying to like a food you must force down. It is like telling yourself that discomfort is joy, edginess is relaxation, cardboard is food. I wish them great educations, lots of adventures, good friends, drug avoidance, full safety and very happy lives, with which I’m increasingly willing to intersect as they age toward maturity. If I had to work at a school, I would rather be the night janitor than a teacher. Night janitors perform a key job to help education happen, and by then the kids would be gone, rather than in my classroom torturing me, knowing that I couldn’t actually discipline them and they could get away with making my job hell. People know when they hit a vulnerable spot, and kids learn it early, long before most of them learn that gratuitous cruelty is not a character strength.

When my wife wants to mess with me, she talks about starting a daycare in our house. She thinks it’s funny. Yuk yuk, what a card. Everyone slap your knees.

As for me, I think it’s pretty funny that I am now editing a book on parenting.

The authors made a good choice in the sense that I’m completely unequipped to debate their parenting concepts. Life has taught me that ‘bad mommy’ is this enormous bugaboo for mothers. They’ll come to blows with the one who even implies Bad Mommy. They’ll yowl that they are Good Mommies, even if their junior Satans are out-of-control unbearable (not just to me, but to normal people). They’ll follow obsessive, fearful childcare regimes in order to avoid even a hint of Bad Mommy. Not that they don’t also do much out of pure maternal love, of course; surely so. I’m not saying that Bad Mommy drives all their decisions. I am saying that in many cases, I smell fear as an additional motivator.

Bad Mommy is even a pack behavior. I used to write for a product review site called Epinions. At Epinions, there was a clique I called the Mommy Platoon. The Mommy Platoon could give you 1000 words on a diaper pail without giggling. Sippy cups were serious business. They kept offsite message boards dedicated to gang-rating reviews they deemed to take parenting insufficiently seriously. They said appalling things to people in comments. Singly, they were cravens, but with the company of a cult of mutual reassurance, they found a form of gangster courage. One of their most devastating bullying weapons was Bad Mommy, used without remorse to bring other women to tears, simply for seeing parenting differently. A number of us, with goodwill and empathy, wrote reviews that made light of parenting and its issues and products, honestly hoping to bring the readership (including the Mommy Platoon) a few good laughs. Laugh about parenting? That was as popular with the Mommy Platoon as bomb jokes are with airport security. I think a majority of the mothers at the site despised the Mommy Platoon.  In the end, a key factor driving many of us away from Epinions was this Mommy Platoon, which evidently never learned the lesson mentioned above about gratuitous cruelty. One lesson I took away from that experience was just how dramatically Bad Mommy will influence a mother’s actions and outlook. I feel for them. I’d hate to have that hanging over me.

Bad Mommy is probably a positive thing in at least one sense. Motherhood is exhausting and endless, and it doesn’t have very many breaks. Perhaps when parenting needs doing in spite of how she feels, at times, Bad Mommy is the lash that drives her onward to do what is needed in spite of her being her own person with her own pains, emotions, desires, and so on. I’m glad I don’t know for sure. I wouldn’t want her job. I could in no way do it, and I marvel that she can.

So I’m editing a parenting book. Here’s the thing: my complete ignorance of the subject is an asset to the authors. I can play my position, which is to fix anything that is flawed about the way they have presented their ideas (as opposed to the ideas themselves). Their parenting advice sounds pretty smart to me, and I think it’ll be a great book; my job is to do my all to help that be so. They must find it a blessed relief that I have zero temptation to debate parenting with them, in much the same way as I have zero temptation to debate Sanskrit translation with lifelong Sanskrit scholars or fly-fishing techniques with a lifelong fisherman. They tell me their previous editor (who sounds very Mommy Platoon to me) fired them and said she would pray for them. I’m impressed that this did not dissuade them. When they sent me the sample chapter to see how I’d handle it, they deliberately picked the most controversial one, just to see how I’d react. When I learned that they had done this, they impressed me more.

I like the project. The authors have a very good sense of humor. I can’t imagine them in the Epinions Mommy Platoon. Along the way, I’ll teach them some stuff. You can divide aspiring writers into two categories: those who want to improve, and those who want to be Frosted Flakes with the reader/reviewer/editor as Tony the Tiger. These ladies are serious about it, which means they have a very real chance to get somewhere with the written word.

Here’s to all moms. They have a hard job.

Sedona: the truth

If you are in any way connected to metaphysical beliefs, neo-paganism, auras, or for that matter your sacred healing spatula, you’ve heard of Sedona. “Amazing, you can feel the energies.” “Such a special, spiritual place.” “I want to move there and start a natural healing center.”

Trust me, they got a lot of those. But the point is that second to Stonehenge, Sedona is to New Agers (and anyone like me who comes unglued when mistaken for them, no offense) as Mecca is to Muslims or Hagia Sophia is to Orthodox Christianity. There are those who have been, and those who wish they had been. So let’s have the candid reality.

We drove up from the southern approach. The scenery is reason enough to see Sedona even if you’re an atheist (amazing geology and views), a devout Southern Baptist (check out what God makes when he’s in a good mood), a Mormon (Brigham Young missed the southward turn, oh my heck), or whatever. You can say faaaaaaaaa to all the hematite jewelry and vortex maps and types of healing you don’t even know what they mean, and just love the trip for the sake of pure scenic loveliness. Sedona is essentially palisaded by tall red walls with very clear multicolored rock layers that are impressive even by the lofty standards of ‘Zona. An overlook near the airport lets you survey a major part of the town–highly recommended.

It is a town very stretched out, yet without sprawl. Roundabouts make it very easy to turn back around to check out that art gallery or crystal shop or restaurant. They manage to have enough parking in spite of the hordes of tourists. I admit I came in very skeptical of the whole business. I promised not to, under any circumstances, blurt the phrase ‘crystal weinie.’ Most essentially, today was for Deb. She has done much of the driving for two weeks, without complaint (I spell her on request, and navigate), and coming here was more her thing than mine. She was due a day driven only by what she desired, with me cheerfully tagging along wherever she wished to explore.

You might have expected Sedona to have a vast excess of metaphysical shops, quaint eateries with vegan-friendly menus, art galleries and enough hematite jewelry to cover the dome of the Arizona State Capitol. (I’m surprised they haven’t thought of that.) Your expectation would be 100% correct. You could not check them all out unless you devoted a month to it, as a day job. If that’s your shopping paradise, by all means make the pilgrimage. Sedona will sate you. However, most people who don’t come for the scenery come for the energies.

On one level, I think there’s something to it. For reasons I cannot explain, my knees–which frequently stiffen up and pain me lately, especially when I first stand up from a long period of sitting, such as in a passenger seat–felt twenty years younger. I felt as if I could walk ten miles or play nine innings. Deb came into town with eyes irritated, we believe by smog in Tucson and Phoenix, but they felt so fine she forgot about it until I asked her if they were better. She’d also had a headache. Vanished. One might attribute those to cleaner air. Cleaner air didn’t give me such a great knee day, I’ll tell you that. What I felt most of all was a sense of calm and tranquility, which I hadn’t anticipated in a moderately crowded place and is rarely the case anywhere I don’t exactly feel like I fit.

Except for the photo ops, of which she took fullest advantage, Deb tired of Sedona the town after a couple of hours. I think the Raven place that turned out to be a timeshare marketing front was the first point of impact. At the same time, she felt the same calm I did in the area. We disappointed the Sedona money machine by buying only one greeting card and one lunch. Fun observation, to which I was alerted in advance by my nephew (who, with my niece, graciously showed us around the natural beauty of the Sonora) in Tucson: the bulding code in Sedona demands that, without exception, all commercial structures conform to a strict code, including color restrictions. The McDonalds in Sedona has teal arches, not golden ones. Dead serious.

Deb and I did find our own spiritual connection in the Sedona area, but we didn’t find it by seeking out a ‘vortex’ crowded with eager seekers in search of energies. Here is the lesson I drew from it. Sedona and its surrounds are so beautiful that I’m not sure how anyone could sustain a bad mood. They represent a special sense of nature, spirits, gods or God–whatever you choose–presenting its/their very best. If you want to find spirituality there, you will find it anywhere you feel drawn–it is an attitude within you that you find reflected in what you see. Deb and I felt a profound sense of unity and love, and wherever we looked, we saw symbols that reflected this. Maybe the place amplifies what you bring to it. Maybe there are ancient spirits who don’t resent the masses of medicine wheel setter-uppers, Whole Foods junkies, mountain bicyclers, pagans and flabby tourists. Maybe it’s something I don’t understand and may never grasp.

Doesn’t matter what I think or understand. Take my word that the scenery of the entire side drive between Rimrock and Flagstaff that includes Sedona is reason enough for any non-blind person to go. As for the rest, bring a good heart and an open mind, seek what you wish, and you may find it. Far as I’m concerned, the shopping is overrated but the natural beauty is Grand Canyon-level smack-you-in-the-soul stuff. The rest is your call.

What I did not know about saguaro cactuses until today

Deb and I spent a couple of hours riding around the Tucson area seeing the amazing variety of stuff that grows out in the Sonora Desert. Hint: there is not very much of it you would voluntarily rub against your more sensitive parts. Since these grow in very few places, and most notably here, if you have never hung around Tucson you might know as little as I did.

They are not exactly endangered, but they are protected both by law and by the general populace as symbols of the region. No one messes with them. Developments adjust home locations for them, and rightly–most people like having one in the ‘yard.’

They are tougher than they look, as they have skeletons of woody fiber. I saw some dead ones. Imagine ropy-looking straight tree branches with many hyphens notched into them, parallel to the length. Wind blows pretty often down here, and they don’t blow over.

Owls, woodpeckers and other birds nest in them without really hurting them. The cactus sort of encysts the pecked hole.

They thrive here mainly because freezes are rare. If you have freezes, you cannot haz saguaro.

The arms don’t show up until they are fairly old, at least over 70 years old. They begin as buds that look like the little ball cactus your friend gave you that one time, but you forgot to water now and then and it died.

A green-barked, leafless, bushy tree called the palo verde tends to sprout right next to them. Seems to work out well for both plants.

They are as tall as you imagined, and more. Elderly saguaros can clear 50′ high. This is a big-ass cactus. The trunks get about the diameter of a 5-gallon bucket.

They tend to be about twenty feet apart. In between them, expect lots of other smaller cactuses: prickly pear in big bushes, cholla, ocotillo, and barrel cactus.

They produce flowers and fruit, which is edible.

Imagine what at first brief glance looks like a rocky hillside recently devastated by fire. Then remove all charring-related color and imagine the scattered damaged trees are all live saguaros, a paler green than the surrounding vegetation, and intersperse a bunch of other cactuses between them on the rocky, rusty ground. That’s exactly what the saguaro forest looks like.

Yes, they are serious about calling it a forest.

Notes from the carriage-room, #5

We have already explored the carriage-room as a symbol of where old meets new, past meets present, archaic meets modern. It is all that. That is not all it is. It is also where indoor meets outdoor. This is about the outdoors.

It is about a doe and her twin fawns, white spots mostly faded now, watching us as we watched her. If you can believe it, under her gaze, I managed to sneak up to the car, open the door, extract the camera and hand it to my wife to start snapping photos.

It is about a flock of wild turkeys in the soybeans down near the creek, great big things.

It is about a box turtle on the highway as we drove back to the ranch. Those turtles have got to learn not to do that. But it tells you something that they think they will survive that crossing. Evidently it’s not the first time.

It is about a cottontail in the chokecherries, freezing and hoping no one would notice it.

That was a day’s wildlife haul, not counting grackles, vultures, hawks, scissortails and the pigeons we scared up in the middle barn.

It is about the carven inscription of the stonemason who worked on the first barn, dated 1896, who evidently could not spell his own last name. To judge by the status of the barn, that didn’t impact his masonry skill. We are still using it, and he must be over half a century dead. When he chiseled his name and the year in that limestone block, Victoria was Queen of England, there was a country called Austria-Hungary, Teddy Roosevelt had not yet done his thing in the Span-Am War, and the Titanic‘s keel had not yet even been laid down.

It is about the gate my grandfather and I installed in the corral, still standing.

It is about the elm tree that split in the ice storm, which I got partly cleaned up on one visit, and still need to finish up sometime if it’s still here when I show up ready to work.

It is about everything you can’t see from I-70 or the Turnpike. In the words of my Aunt Jaque: “You have to walk the prairie to see what is in the grass.” Our ancestors had to understand the land and its creatures, a matter of life and death for them. No matter what metropolis you live in, that is still inside you, in your wiring. Food does not originate at Whole Foods, Safeway or Wal-Mart. This is where it comes from. To understand it, to touch it, is to touch what is deep inside you, even if you live in Lake Oswego and make your own mayonnaise (and it’s stellar). No matter how urbanized you are, here is where you touch on your sustenance, your very roots as a human woman or man.

In the carriage-room, you can see and feel that.

This is also the final installment from the carriage-room. To those of you who have sat with me here, well, thank you. It has been a pleasure.

Notes from the carriage-room, #4

It has rained all day tonight, conferring muuuud upon the ranch. And welcome, too, all over Kansas. They have had an eastern Washington summer minus the irrigation. No more starscapes; overcast but no chance of serious thunderstorms. This isn’t twister season. Many comments about us bringing rain from Washington to Kansas. I’m willing that we might have done so. I went out to the rain gauge, .33″. Hope it rains all night so we get more.

Reflecting on the many odd juxtapositions of the carriage-room, as Deb watches Dance Moms on a TV sitting six inches below a rack of well-used saddle blankets. Horses came down from the pasture this afternoon and Deb rushed out to see them, like a girl of seven. Deer in the vineyard today, and she zipped out along the muddy driveway to try and photograph them. A little too swiftly, causing the deer to make their “stay the hell away from us, you faecolith” noise. It’s kind of a brief low sputtered moo. I wisecracked to Uncle Mike that they were fed up with paparazzi.

Tonight was Deb’s night to probe Aunt Jaque and Uncle Mike for their knowledge of the cattle industry. They described one time they took exception to a group of cowboys who treated the stock too roughly during loading. Remember, these aren’t their cattle, though it is their property and they don’t have to tolerate behavior they find unbearable. The cowboys weren’t allowed back. Looks like some family principles traverse many generations.

The power just cycled, probably to do with the rainstorm. Common event out here. Kept right on typing. Laptop battery power is a win.

A lamed old part-Dalmatian named Rowdy is having weird dreams on one of the rugs in here. He is the current beneficiary of Aunt Jaque’s Ad Hoc Homeless Animal Shelter, in which any dog or cat who can achieve this sanctuary and doesn’t belong to someone else is granted automatic lifetime employment slaying varmints (cat) or patrolling the premises and barking at everything (dog) or running the barn (cat of great agility and survival skill). I can’t even keep track of ’em all over the years.

I never gave the stone walls of this place a just description. They are limestone, a light creamy color, held together with gray mortar. Kansas limestone comes in several hues, but nearly all of it is found in strata of the same thickness. Most of the rocks are either 4″ or 8″ thick, depending on whether the rocks were quarried with care, or just picked up nearby. They make mosaics that look like state county maps if the state had a bunch of fairly elongated counties. It is routine to spot an ancient seashell in a piece of the wall, a fossil from the days when this was a massive seabed. They contrast oddly with the perfect light beige 1′ square tiles of the floor, a fairly apt metaphor for the room overall. Notice I said all four walls. Some of the interior walls of the house are stone as well.

Limestone construction is not rare in Kansas, and in the 1800s and early 1900s was quite the norm. A good many old churches, civic buildings, and the bulk of Kansas State University are built from limestone. It is an emblem. It means a great many cream-colored buildings, often in very stately and appealing architecture. And they last. Here is a good example, sitting approximately four miles from me.

This one has lasted 126 years, and it shows zero sign of failing. If in 1898 I sat where I sit now, I’d have a big horse-drawn carriage pretty much blocking the TV and harness case.

I could live with blocking the TV.

Notes from the carriage-room, #3

Well, Uncle Mike (my host) is a reader of the blog, so tonight he volunteered the answer to one mystery. What’s in the big cedar chest? No, it’s not tintypes; no, it’s not quilts. It is antique beer signs. Well, we wouldn’t have guessed that. By the way, want to thank all of you who have been joining me in the carriage-room. Glad to have you.

Today’s main activity was first visiting Grandma and Mom, who took us out to lunch. Anyone who has ever seen me knows that’s not a tough sell with me. A bit of shopping in Emporia and a generally quiet afternoon, something we could use after a lot of going and going. Tonight, spaghetti and meatballs kindly provided by cousins Melissa and Adam bringing young cousin Aidan with his interesting gestures and comic manner. A very family evening with folks we so rarely get to see.

In case you think I’m out here in Hayseedville accepting wheat stalks to chew in my teeth, living a Beverly Hillbillies episode, consider this. I’m under-educated in this crowd. Uncle Mike: BS, Civil Engineering. Aunt Jaque: BS, Zoology, Ph.D, Counseling, probably a MA in it as well (I lose track). Mom, BA in Education and Home Economics. Grandma, I forget what it’s in. Melissa, MS in Speech Pathology. Adam, not sure what it’s in, something that makes him a successful IT professional. This is a gifted group, granted, but such a concentration of education isn’t that rare here. My relatives are not here because they lack for options. They’re here because they love it here, because they see in it what I see, and have committed themselves to the land. They’d rather stay here and battle the multiple challenges of Kansas, thus they do. I understand. It often makes me feel like a bit of a lamer, living far away.

So here I sit in the carriage-room, and tonight I spent some time among the saddles and tack, inhaling the weathered leather scent. It is not powerful, but subtle and earthy, solid and reliable. Hard to the touch, a bit dusty but having received good care before and after riding. Nothing fancy, nothing flashy; suitable working gear for cowboying, or cowgirling, if that were necessary. Let me walk you around the outside, so you can get a better feel for all this.

We’re on a thousand acres of land, all but about 70 acres unsuitable for the plow. Let’s dispense with that question right now. Why put cattle here, rather than farm it and feed so many more? You can’t, not without causing serious erosion and environmental damage. You’d wreck not only this land, but you’d harm others. This is prairie grassland, and it is suitable for herd animal grazing, as it was suitable for the buffalo herds. It can pasture roughly one head per four acres without damage–and those who custody it care a great deal about avoiding damage. Irony: the eco-sensitive, good stewardship option here is cattle (or some other livestock, or nothing). We step outside the carriage-room, pulling shut the extra wide Dutch door. Ahead to the left, the guesthouse/mother-in-law apartment, built by my aunt and uncle just so my grandmother could live out here at her birthplace as long as health and safety permitted. Beyond them, three huge stone barns with rusty metal roofs, each about fifty yards long. Well, two have roofs. A twister ran off with one of them, and since three barns were not a desperate need, it wasn’t replaced. Dead ahead, the granary and the vineyard. No grain has been stored in the granary for decades, certainly not in my forty-eight years of life; never mind. It will only cease to be called the granary if it should fall down. Uncle Mike and I saved some snakes in that granary, a story we enjoy recalling.

Moving clockwise, the former vineyard sits forlorn, then the driveway (a place that has less muuuud right now than usual, thanks to a drouth). Then the earthen dam that impounds the pond, with salt licks out for the deer, simply because deer are liked. The pond, of course, circling now around the quarried stone walls. For the same reason there isn’t much muuuud in the driveway (several hundred yards long, between stone fenceposts twined with old ribbon barbed wire some eighty years old), the pond is low. Lowest I’ve ever seen it. The back yard is tranquil and looks out through woods toward the pasture. At night, coyotes howl up the draw. Then the muddy road out toward the pastures (please be sure to shut all gates), the gate my grandfather and I put up, and the corral and barns–a 360-degree walkaround. Welcome to Kansas as I understand it.

A note on muuuud. ‘Mud’ is a substance that washes off with water. The Flint Hills don’t have mud. They have muuuud, which does not wash off with water. It accumulates on your boots like ankle weights, and one had better not track muuuud onto the carpet or else. My family is greatly amused by the way I spell and pronounce it, so I keep doing it.

Someone once told a Flint Hills cowhand that the flint here (it’s the color of a new baseball mitt, medium golden brown) was actually chert. His answer, from William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth: “Like hell. I ain’t livin’ in no Chert Hills.” Heat-Moon is a good guy, by the way, and if you like these notes, you’d probably like that book. It is entirely about this county, Chase, one of the poorest and toughest in the state. I approve of its depiction.

Tonight I was reminding Uncle Mike of when only daughter Melissa was a young college-age lady, and I was helping him and Aunt Jaque schlep all their stuff out from Emporia, must be seventeen years ago, and I found a cattle castrator laying around in the barn. Looks about like this. (What, you don’t keep those around your house? How do you manage? A pocket-knife is really cruel. Please be humane–the future steers didn’t ask for this.) I stashed it until Mike showed up and then offhandedly said, “Hey, Mike, I figured out what we can do if we don’t like Melissa’s boyfriends.” “What’s that, John?” I pulled out the castrator and smiled.

He guffawed then, and he guffawed tonight. Adam, Melissa’s husband, did not guffaw at the retelling.

Don’t worry, Adam. If we’d have known you were coming along, we wouldn’t have worried. We had to consider many eventualities. We reckon we lucked out on that. You notice we are just telling the story, not actually waving the thing around at you.