Saturday, October 24, 2009

Your Turn


Every four to seven days for almost nine months now I’ve posted a blog on “The View from the Back Pew.” Today’s blog is my 54th. It’s assessment time.

I’m asking myself, Why do I blog? First of all, for the discipline of writing. (Though I’ve other things waiting to be written without the same time pressures.)

I write, also, for the pleasure of communicating. Problem is, except for reader comments, which are rare, I’m flying blind (or deaf). But am I connecting with any live minds out there in the ether? I'd really like to know.

I'll acknowledge also a self-interested motivation. I’ve hoped that this blog might, without constantly harping on my recently published novel, give me enough name recognition to attract readers to Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough. This, too, I have no way of knowing.

So, today I’m asking a favor. Scroll down to the word “comments” below and me some feedback. My questions:

1) Who is reading this? Give me a name, a nickname, an Internet ID, or whatever.

2) I write on a variety of subjects. What would you like to hear more of? (a) matters related to the writing and selling of fiction? (b) reflections on what I’m reading? (c) musings from the back pew on matters of faith and church life? (d) observations on aging and life in a retirement community?

3) If you have bought or read Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough, was it this blog that stoked your interest? If not, what was it?

Your turn. Comment on any of my questions, or say what you please. I’m listening.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Tax Man Cometh


At the age of 83, I’m admittedly a babe in the woods when it comes to business affairs. I’m getting an expensive lesson.

In September, when I offered my novel, Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough, for sale locally, my tax accountant did the paperwork and online work to set me up for the collection of state and local sales taxes. He filed online with the state of Alabama and gave me papers to file with Baldwin County and the City of Spanish Fort. All three jurisdictions levy sales taxes.
I paid him $75 for his services. It seemed reasonable, although I wasn’t real happy about having to seek professional help for the privilege of collecting taxes.

I took the county form to the nearest county court house annex and was told they’d send it to the proper office. When I dropped the city form off at city hall, I received an unpleasant surprise. “That will be $35 for the remainder of the year,” I was told.

“What for?”

“For your business license.”

As I said, I’m a late learner in these things. “I don’t want a business license,” I told her.

“But that’s what this is,” she said, “an application for a business license.”

“I need that, just to collect your taxes for you?”

“Yes, you’ll be doing business.”

I paid it of course. I was told I would owe another $65 in January.

Ten days later, a surprise in the mail. A bill from the county for a county/state business license. This time, only $30, good until next October 1.

My CPA told me I’d have to file forms with each jurisdiction every month “whether you do any business that month or not.” So today, a visit to his office to file sales taxes collected in September and to learn the complexities of doing my own filing in the future.

It took him nearly an hour to set up the online payment forms that I can use in future months. Good man, he asked, in return, a signed copy of my book.

In this first month of book sales, the taxes I owed the three jurisdictions totaled $35.98. For October, it will be less than that. In November, the game will probably be about over as far as personal sales of my book in Alabama go. All told, I may collect as much as $80 in taxes through December, at a cost to me of $140 and a signed copy of my book.

It’s rather late in life, but I’m learning about government and business.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Authors Nights at Westminster Village


In the six years I have lived at Westminster Village, our active Leisure Services Department has on several occasions sponsored book readings. In the last three weeks we have had two.

Almost three weeks ago, I had the good fortune to be the featured author. I
told how I had taken to writing novels at the age of 80 and read half-a-dozen passages from Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough, after which I signed copies as people attending bought them to read for themselves.

Except for the Kindle version, which was published last December, it was the first time the novel was for sale in Spanish Fort, and therefore a special night for me. I’ve had the pleasure since of hearing from some well satisfied readers.

On Tuesday of last week, the Village hosted Sonny Brewer, the popular author of four books, all set in or close to nearby Fairhope, where Brewer lives. Of course, I attended. I’ve been a fan ever since reading The Poet of Tolstoy Park. I’ve reread it twice.

As Brewer read briefly from three of his novels, including the just published The Widow and the Tree, I realized anew what a lyrical writer of prose he is. He pushed my envy button, for sure. But he spent most of his forty minutes telling stories related to the writing and publishing of his books. As a teller of stories, he is a real artist.

When Melissa Manjone, our Leisure Services Director, signed me up for my night at the podium, she didn't tell me that Sonny Brewer would be our speaker just two weeks later. I’m glad I was the first up to bat. Brewer is an act I would not have wanted to follow.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Red Robes


About three blogs back, I recalled how the choir of my childhood church processed down the aisle and into the chancel every Sunday singing Holy, Holy, Holy. I have one other memory of church processionals. It has to do with bright red robes.

In the later years of my active ministry I served as interim pastor for a year and a half at the First Presbyterian Church of Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a handsome old Gothic church in downtown Lincoln, a block from the high rise Art Deco state capitol building and not far from the University of Nebraska.

As in my boyhood church, the choir processed down the aisle every Sunday. Not always to the same hymn, however.
It was a good choir. They sang better than the angels and they looked really sharp in their scarlet robes. A theologically appropriate color, I thought; better than in some churches where the color of the robes is chosen to complement the color of the paint on the walls.

One Saturday, when I had been in Lincoln only about a month, one of my new Nebraska friends took me to my first University of Nebraska football game. I don’t remember who the Cornhuskers were playing that day, but they won. “Of course,” their fans would say. The Cornhuskers had a habit of winning.

What I remember most about that Saturday is that the Cornhusker fans all turned out for the game dressed in the school colors. The U of N side of the stadium was a solid sea of red. I was impressed.

The next morning as my associate pastor and I followed the choir down the center aisle, I was struck by a jolting question. Were those red robes really chosen for their doctrinal significance? They were Cornhusker red.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Naming Game


When I started writing my current novel, set in Mobile, Alabama, and Costa Rica, I labeled it “Megachurch,” a working title. Over the course of its development, encouraged by members of my bi-weekly writers’ group, I’ve experimented with other titles. There have been two or three versions of “The Tattoo, “The Unholy Tattoo,” “Pastor Matt’s Tattoo,” etc., but I’ve never been happy with the use of that device in the title. It figures in the plot, but is not central to the message of the book and probably not appealing to the readers for whom I write.

As I move into Draft 7 of my editing and rewriting process, I’ve put a new label on this book-in-progress. The manuscript now bears the heading “Sunrise in the Cloud Forest.” That describes the climactic event in the novel, and also suggests its overarching theme. At last I have a title I feel good about. It just might endure.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Banner Week


This is the end of a banner week in my life as a published writer. It was marked by two happy events.

On Tuesday I introduced my first novel, Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough, to my fellow residents of Westminster Village in an evening book reading/signing, hosted by Melissa Manjone, our Director of Leisure Services. The reading had been announced almost a month in advance. It was well attended, and book sales surpassed expectations. Thank you, Melissa.

On Friday I received in the mail my first royalty check for books sold through amazon.com in August. It was a modest check, but the first month sales were a boost to my morale for they, too, exceeded expectations.

I’m not tempted to frame this first royalty check, but I will make a Xerox copy to file away somewhere to be discovered amidst my clutter by my heirs.

Of course I am not yet in the best seller league, but Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough is off to a respectable start, and I have reason to believe that my September royalty check, when it arrives, will reflect an even greater number of sales.

So I'm celebrating. Lift a glass with me.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Holy, Holy, Holy


We have just concluded a five-week study of Revelation on Wednesday nights at Spanish Fort Presbyterian Church, led by the Reverend Samford Turner, our local presbytery executive. Though he has been out of the active pastorate for seven years, holding down an administrative position, Samford has not let his talents as a Bible teacher grow rusty. He made one of the most difficult books of the Bible come alive to the substantial number of folks who come out on Wednesday night for supper and Bible study.

On those Wednesday nights we sang some of the many hymns that are rooted in the book of Revelation. Of these, the old classic, Holy, Holy, Holy, is my favorite. When he announced it on the second night of our study, Samford told a story that took me back to my own childhood.

Samford lived in Mobile as a boy and was privileged to grow up in the Government Street Presbyterian Church, the historic old mother church of Presbyterians in coastal Alabama. He told us that in his boyhood the congregation at Government Street stood up and sang Holy, Holy, Holy as their first hymn every Sunday.

I may have been the only person in the room who could say a similar thing. When I was a boy, our family church was the Second Presbyterian Church of Washington, Pennsylvania. I have two early memories of that church.

One was the memory of being taken by my father to see the building site when our new Gothic church was being built. I was four or five years old. I don’t think I had ever seen any kind of building construction before, and this site was like a yawning crater opening up in the earth.

My other, more vivid, recollection is the memory of standing in that church with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, great aunts and great uncles, cousins--the whole Scots-Irish Johnston tribe filling the same three adjacent pews--as the choir processed down the long aisle singing the same hymn every Sunday.

Of course, it was Holy, Holy, Holy. I have loved it ever since.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Muslim Correspondent Needed


I’m stuck! Now that my novel, Parson Campbell's Breakthrough, is in print, I’m well into the writing of a new novel about a megachurch pastor’s struggle to maintain his church and his marriage against the machinations of an ambitious associate.

That part’s going OK, but one of the subplots follows the conversion of the pastor’s son to Islam and his marriage to a young American Muslim woman whom he meets in law school.


I want to get the Muslim wedding right, and I need a Muslim correspondent who will answer the questions I have about the wedding setting and ceremony and then read and critique the two short chapters that I will write as part of my larger story.

This novel will, I think, be a positive note in a time when American Muslim-Christian relationships are strained. Have I a Muslim reader of this blog who will share this brief effort with me? Or a reader with a Muslim friend who might be enlisted? Let me hear from you.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A View of a Reborn Church


In this day when so many of the churches I’ve known over the years are diminishing in membership, and some of them struggling even to survive, I’ve been heartened by a video sent to me by Dean and Beve Finley, friends with whom I was associated some years ago when I was an interim minister in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The video tells the story of the Carondelet-Markham Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, where the Finley’s daughter, the Reverend Susan Finley, is pastor. It’s the story of a church in a depressed neighborhood, now reborn because its seventeen surviving members reached out to Liberian refugees, people of another race and culture, and found that in serving these new neighbors the life of their dying church was renewed.

I’ll say no more. For a story that will move you to hope, perhaps even to a new vision of commitment and ministry, copy this URL into your browser:
http://www.pcusa.org/goodnews/.

Then click on the encircled arrow overlaying Susan Finley’s picture.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A “View From” Blog to Feast On


Back sometime in the early history of blogs my son Mike started writing “The View From My Rooftop.” In the last year or so, as business obligations have become more demanding, Mike’s postings have become less frequent. Since he and Mary will soon exchange their city condo, with its rooftop view, for a single-family home in a less urban setting, the fate of his view from the rooftop is uncertain.

It is obvious, of course, that I borrowed from Mike when I named my own blog “The View from the Back Pew.” (I should have named it "The View Out the Church Door," for it ranges wherever I choose to take it.)

Now Mary is posting a “A View from My Table"(http://aviewfrommytable.blogspot.com)--a third point of view. You can feast on this blog, for Mary provides mouth-watering pictures of what is on her table along with recipes for those who find the pictures irresistible.

In recent days the menus have included: lentil soup, featured in Dr. Angelo Acquista’s book, The Mediterranean Prescription; Caprese salad, with fresh tomatoes and sliced mozzarella; and potato-crusted flounder with fire-roasted red pepper and chorizo.

Lucky Mike! He eats at Mary’s table. That’s what I call a fantastic view.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Soul Food Buffet


Near the end of every month, residents of Westminster Village anticipate a special evening buffet dinner (our evening meal is normally served at the table) featuring the food of some special culture. Chef Breck has given us Italian, Polynesian, Caribbean and the food of a host of other cultures. Last night he came closer to home when he gave the black members of the kitchen staff the privilege of providing the kind of meal they would serve guests in their own homes. It was Soul Food night.

The menu for this Soul Food Buffet began with bacon and corn chowder and seafood pasta salad. On the main buffet line we found stuffed pork chops, southern fried chicken and slap yo’ mama meatloaf. Though I would never think of slapping my mama, I opted for the meatloaf and it was the best I’ve eaten since my own mama put her Yankee-recipe meat loaf on the table when I was a boy.

Along with my meatloaf I ate Louisiana dirty rice and green bean casserole. Both were excellent. I could also have had down home collard greens, Mississippi red beans or potato and crabmeat casserole. Between Betty and Jo and Richard, the couple with whom we ate, we sampled most of these things. All were pronounced good, even by Jo, a thin little lady who worried that such a menu might be loaded with hog fat.

Our dessert choices included sweet potato pie and hummingbird cake. I had never before eaten hummingbird cake—in fact, had never heard of it—but I’m going to ask our food manager to add that to the list of excellent cakes that appear on our tables with regularity. The cake looked something like pound cake, which I am fond of, but was more of a caramel color and had pineapple and nuts and who knows what all else in it.

Today I’m not going to go near that dining room. I’m still full of soul food, and feasting on the memory of it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Nicholas Sparks


Last night I read the first 96 pages of Nicholas Sparks’s novel, The Lucky One. Sparks has become one of my favorite novelists, and as I read those pages I consciously asked myself why. First of all, I decided, because Sparks knows how to tell a good story. I’m not yet deep into his plot, but he aroused my interest in the first five pages, a requirement for any novelist who hopes to get published. So I’ll stay with this. I want to know where this story is going.

Beyond plot, however, Sparks has a way of introducing his characters that I find compelling. He tells us more about what they do than about what they look like. Yet, in my mind’s eye, I have a picture of Logan Thibault. Ex-Marine, he has walked from Colorado to North Carolina. He’s tan and fit. Tall and lean. Nothing striking about his features, except long hair like Tarzan’s. I can almost picture him, but it may not be the picture the next reader has.

Same with Beth. Good looking, but in what way? At almost thirty, she’s more sexy than the co-eds her ex-husband has surprised at the nude beach. Is my picture of her like anyone else’s? It will do for me.

And Deputy Keith Clayton. Apparently good enough looking to be a successful womanizer, and fit enough for his law enforcement duties and to think he might enjoy taking on Logan Thibault.

Chances are, by the end of this book, Nicholas Sparks will have told me more about these characters, but for now I’m doing well enough on my own imagination. I don’t have to know the color of Logan’s hair. This is writing worth emulating.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Introducing Parson Campbell


Although Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough has been available as a Kindle Book since early this year, and the paperback edition can now be ordered on amazon.com, this print edition will first be available for local sale in Spanish Fort on September 22. On that date Melissa Manjone, our leisure services director, will host a reading and book signing evening here at Westminster Village. It seems right to me to make that the local introduction of the book.

My talk on that occasion will be on the plot of the book, with selected readings from each of the three plot lines, and on how at the age of eighty I came to undertake the writing of this novel. I am open to opportunities to repeat this program in other venues.

I am beginning to think also of a second presentation, this time on the characters in the book, for use in circumstances when I have reason to believe there will be an overlap in my audience. I have such occasions already scheduled with a local church book club in October and my Westminster Village book club in December. The talk will center on Eddie and Myra Campbell, of course, and on Mr. Melon, the antagonist, with attention also to Mama Campbell, a Missouri realtor, and to Cy and Josephine Pennington, Myra's Bluegrass horse farm parents.

There is a third layer of characters on the Parson Campbell stage with minor or cameo roles that I may save for a third talk. I think of Elberta Gettys and Mrs. Hutchinson, and of Alma, Myra's once-a-week household help, who knew just what to do with cast-off longjohns. And then there's Murphy, who was Alma's canine partner in crime. These characters are the salt and pepper in the Pear Valley soup.

If you’re hungry for a good read, order Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough from amazon.com. There’s a handy link on my website at www.bertjohnston.com with a sample chapter to dip into.

The amazon.com site for this book also offers a “Look Inside” feature through which you can read random passages and examine the covers up close. Just like in a bookshop, but you don't have to drive there.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Mountain Climbing in the Book World


Though I have lived along the Gulf Coast for most of the past thirty-five years, I grew up in West Virginia and still think of those forested mountains with a wistful memory. My ridge running days have left their mark upon my soul.

I think of those mountains often in these latter days of my life when I have turned to writing. It took me over two years of day and night effort to write Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough and more than another year to get it polished and published. Each of these accomplishments was like scaling a literary mountain. But I don’t yet have the view I had in mind when I began the climb.

It’s like hiking in the Appalachians – always, it seems, another peak ahead of you. So, I’ve stopped just a moment to rest and enjoy an energy bar, and now I’m moving up the steep slope toward the third peak. It’s called “Mount Marketing.” I won’t reach my destination as a wannabe author until I attain the high end of this trail.

Give me a little push, if you can. Tell your friends they’ll surely want to read Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough. A guy named Bert Johnston wrote it, and he set it in the Virginia highlands.

Read a sample chapter at: www.bertjohnston.com.
That site marks the top of your first foothill. Click on “Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough” and be transported to the order page at www.amazon.com/books.

Top of the world, friend. Great view.

Monday, August 10, 2009

In the Wake of the Big Leagues


Our bi-monthly book club met this month on the first Monday evening. Sorry, it has never adopted a name other than “the book club,” but now there’s a second book club meeting at Westminster Village, this one on first Monday afternoons. For the moment the two groups are identified simply by reference to the time of day they meet.

The format for the new club is different, however. Instead of an assigned book, the afternoon club shares brief descriptions of what each participant is currently reading. It’s a good way to compile a “must-read” list. Several of our residents are participating in both clubs.

Our book for the Monday night group in August was Dianne Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife. We agreed that this true story of courage and imagination amid the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw has been beautifully told. All of us had lived through World War II, but still found this book a shocking revelation. Who, after reading it, could ever deny the Holocaust? Who, also, could ever deny the reality of human compassion?

For our October meeting we will return to fiction, with Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. It has been two years since I read it. I will happily read it again.

Our group usually does not choose its books more than one meeting ahead, but at this August meeting my fellow members honored me by choosing to read Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough for our December discussion. I’m pleased, of course.

It’s a daunting thought, however, to follow Diane Ackerman and Sara Gruen. I think I’ve written a good book. I hope it’s more than a sand lot game, but I don’t fancy my work to be in the same league with these modern classics.

For a sample chapter of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough, go to my website: www.bertjohnston.com.

To order from the website, click on my title to go directly to the book on: www.amazon.com.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Cat Who Prays


A few days ago I introduced Walter Mitty, the large tiger cat who shares our apartment at Westminster Village. I didn’t tell you that he prays. I don’t mean “preys.” Mitty came to us six years ago without front claws, and couldn’t chase down a crippled cricket.

Moreover, if he prayed in those first days with us, it was privately, in his closet, and we weren’t aware of it. It’s a habit he has picked up from Betty and me in the time we have had him. Most evenings somewhere between nine and ten o’clock, we share a Bible reading along with the reading of a selected devotional writing and a prayer.

It’s a bit of a stretch, of course, to say that Mitty prays with us. Only God could confirm that. But he has come to understand that we want no attention from him during these fifteen or twenty minutes, so he waits us out, sitting on the floor between our chairs, relaxed but upright and, we’ve noticed, most often with his eyes closed.

When the Amen has been said and the Bibles placed back on the table, Mitty comes to life. It’s treat time, and he is rewarded for his stillness. The kibbles are probably what he’s been praying so patiently for.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Transformation of Walter Mitty


A young couple whose baby was allergic to cats gave us Walter Mitty. They had never formally named him but he answered to “Kitty.” We wanted something a little less generic than that, so we settled on “Walter Mitty.” He quickly adjusted to being called “Mitty.”

In addition to the obvious advantage of rhyming with his earlier name, we found “Walter Mitty” an appropriate name because he was a very timid cat. During his first week at our house, we saw him only if we looked behind the washer and dryer or under the guest room bed. He ate his food and used his box, but not when we were awake and watching.

After a week, Mitty decided he was safe with us and he came out from behind-or-under and joined the family. He even became my lap cat in short order. If the doorbell rang, however, he was instantly out of sight. Visitors had to take our word for it that we had a cat.

Mitty was solely an indoor pet. When we moved to Westminster Village he adapted well to apartment living. Even the hall outside our apartment door seemed like another world to Mitty. He did not venture out and he did not show himself to people who entered the apartment. When we had lived here two or three months, I pulled him out from under the bed one morning and introduced him to our maid, who came on alternate Tuesdays. “Debra, this is Mitty, just in case you thought he was a phantom.”

Mitty was about three years old when he came to live with us, not much more than an adolescent as cats go, maybe a young adult. He’s now a middle aged nine-year-old, and has outgrown almost all of his earlier inhibitions. He is Debra’s good buddy, and is more likely to be on the bed than under it when she changes the sheets.

No visitor comes who isn’t properly greeted and sniffed out. And though he rarely ventures more than twenty feet from our door, Mitty insists on being allowed into the hall for a few minutes first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

All of which is to say, timidity is not always a lifelong affliction. Given a lot of love and a little encouragement, the Walter Mittys of this world sometimes morph into extroverts. Not quite? Well, at least into social beings.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

From Hoops to Hurdles


Yesterday it arrived: the third proof-copy of my novel, Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough. This time the cover was perfect. Light enough to show the wood grain, but with enough contrast to show effectively the notice that is tacked to it.

What to do first? I e-mailed Lindsey Archer, who designed the cover and then patiently submitted three amended versions to adapt to the publisher’s printing process. At the same time, a message to my son Mike, whose savvy about writing and technology has been an indispensable help along the way. I am grateful to both of them.

Then, this morning, I clicked on a button on the Create Space website to move the publishing process forward. Today is officially the date of publication, a red-letter day on my calendar. Now I wait to see how soon amazon.com shows it on their online catalog.

Along with the congratulatory replies from Lindsey and Mike was Mike’s reminder of the work ahead: “Now to develop a marketing plan.” Ah, yes. We move from jumping through hoops to leaping over the hurdles of the marketplace.

For the time being my second novel is in "Park." The engine is still running but it is not moving forward.
Oh, for the good old days when the publishers did the marketing and writers got on with the writing of the next one.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Adventuresome Life


Ian Fleming, author of all those James Bond novels, also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a novel in which he offered a philosophy of life that was probably his own: “Never say ‘no’ to adventures. Always say ‘yes,’ otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”

Arnold J. Jacobs, in The Know-It-All, calls that “moderately profound….not quite Ecclesiastes, but it’s pretty good advice.”

It reminds me of the old saying, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

I would add my own caveat: some adventures, though admittedly exciting, are morally adverse from the start and, in the end, bear sour fruit. I’d like to amend Fleming’s advice to “Go with God, and never look back.”

That’s adventuresome enough to make any life exciting and, at the same time, deeply satisfying.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Lasting Happiness


F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote of a time, shortly after his marriage to Zelda and the publication of This Side of Paradise, when he experienced a moment of depression so extreme that he burst into tears while riding through the city in a taxi. He cried, he said, “because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.”

Now there are all sorts of reasons for depression, but if he was anywhere within shouting distance I’d say, ”Come off it, Fitzi, this one just doesn’t meet the test.”

I am past the point of having everything I ever wanted. I can remember having a stimulating and challenging vocation, a large and comfortable home with my family close around me, vigorous health, and a growing investment account. That was then.

Now I have reached the point in my retirement years where I have to pause to consider why I am getting out of bed in the morning; I have no job to go to, no yard to mow or flower beds to weed. My wife and I have downsized, our investment accounts are flowing in the wrong direction, our nearest family member is six hours away, and advancing years are taking their toll on our health and vigor.

But I do get up every morning, and I remain as happy as I was in “better” years. It’s a simple matter of faith and trust. Early in life, before I achieved what I could later recognize as success, even before I married and had a family, I latched onto a saying of the Apostle Paul that has been a watchword during every stage of my life. Paul wrote from prison to his friends at Philippi at what was obviously a low, low point in his life:

“Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.”

Grab hold of that. It’s the formula for a happiness that will not go away, come hell or high water.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The End Is in Sight


At last. A week or so ago, after two and a half years of labor, I uploaded the interior file for my novel, Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough, to CreateSpace, the amazon.com company that will produce it. Back came an e-mail. There was a “properties” problem, which I decoded as a problem with page count. I resolved that; then Lindsey Archer adjusted her cover design for spine width and sent me the file.

I uploaded my interior file again, this time successfully. Another hoop behind me. I uploaded Lindsey’s cover file. A message came back, a successful upload. But then another message: some elements of the cover needed a higher resolution. Lindsey dealt with that, and it appeared we could go back through that hoop again. Then, a message from Lindsey. Another hoop. The higher dots-per-inch count resulted in a file too large to send by e-mail. My son Mike found a way around that. The cover file came through, and I uploaded it successfully to CreateSpace.

Three days later, the proof copy of the book arrived in the mail, days before I had dared to expect it. The book is in sight, which is more progress than I made in the dream of my walk with Walter Mitty (see post of June 29). How many more hoops to jump through yet before this appears in the amazon.com catalog? Surely not many.

I’m almost ready now for all those marketing hoops. Hooray? Or aw shucks? I’m not sure which.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Jumping Through the Hoops.


Back to the twists and turns of self-publishing a book.
When I decided I would s
elf- publish my novel, Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough, I determined I would not invest cash in a stash of books to be parked in some storage locker (I have no garage) until sold.

I decided to go with CreateSpace, an amazon.com offshoot that publishes on a print-on-demand basis at virtually no up-front cost to the author IF the author produces a manuscript already formatted for the page and already proof read. That, of course, is a big IF.

It took some doing, and I thought I would be blind before I finished the proofing. Each time I thought I had perfect copy, I would read it through and find more typos. At last I am through that hoop. There may still be errors in the finished book, but I hope very few, and with the print-on-demand system I won’t have to wait for a second edition to correct them. If I upload an amended file to CreateSpace’s computer, the next book printed will be a corrected copy. Neat!

In the midst of all this there was the question of a cover. Before I was quite aware that CreateSpace offers cover templates that can be adapted by the author, I sought an original design. My son Mike enlisted the services of Lindsey Archer, a young designer in Memphis. While I was still proofing my text, she produced six cover designs among which I could choose. All were good, nothing “cookie cutter” about them, but one stood out. When I knew my final page count, which affects spine width, she e-mailed me a cover file to upload to Create/Space.

End of process? Not quite. There always seems to be one more jog in the road, another hoop to jump through but the book is now in sight. We'll get there yet.

(To be continued.)

Monday, June 29, 2009

No Thoroughfare.


One night recently I dreamed I was walking with Walter Mitty, our cat, through an urban neighborhood, trying to reach our home, just a few blocks away. Like so many dreams, this one did not fit reality. To begin with, Spanish Fort, where I live, is a long way from being urban.

Moreover, I would never try to walk down a street with Mitty and, more to the point, he would never try to walk down a street with me. Mitty is totally an indoor cat, who never wanders up the hall from our apartment door further than to the next apartment, a distance of about 25 feet, and who has to be carried out of the building in a cage for his annual trip to the vet.

My dreams, typically, are about the struggle to accomplish something always just a bit out of reach. It was so in this urban neighborhood. No street was a thoroughfare. At every intersection I was faced with a choice of a half-block jog to the left or to the right, and I never knew which would being me closer to my destination.

To complicate my struggle, I was having to carry my weary cat. At 16 pounds, Mitty is no small burden, and he fights being held by anyone in an upright stance. (Laps are another thing.) So I struggled on and on in this dream, carrying my heavy, squirmy cat and getting nowhere. As is usual in such dreams, I woke before I reached my seemingly unreachable destination.

I wondered later if this was a dream about the publishing of my book, Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough. It took me two years, working full time, to write this novel, and I’ve spent another year or more querying agents and publishers. More recently, I decided to self-publish, and that’s not a straight thoroughfare, either.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Preacher's Mechanical Aid


When my writer’s group met last week we were treated to three new blank verse poems by our in-house poet, Betty Ivy. I introduced you to Betty as my favorite contemporary poet in a blog posted on April 1.

Betty’s new poems were marked by her usual lyrical blank verse rhythm and her sense of the ironic, Betty’s trademarks. My favorite was called “The Fan.”

This fan is no ordinary house fan. It is the fan that sits beside the pulpit at St. James Church in Fairhope week in and week out and says, as it swivels and bobs, yes yes yes to the affirming words of the pastor and no no no to the things we don’t want in our lives.

Ingenious! Why did I never think to put such a fan alongside my pulpit, when I had a pulpit? Probably because I didn’t have a resident poet to tell me how it might sing out the gospel in reinforcement of my preaching.

Best of all, when St. James’s preacher leaves the pulpit and the members file out the door, the little fan remains behind, still saying yes yes yes to the preacher’s benediction.

But it takes a poet to hear it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Meadows in Which to Dance


In a prayer entitled “I Need to Start Over,” the late Kenneth G. Phifer confessed past sins, as we all must confess ours, and moved on with a prayer for his future:
“So let me rise up and be done with the past. / Each day is new and fresh, / and each hour is fraught with grandeur. . . . / I’ve roads to walk / and hills to climb / and meadows in which to dance.” (From A Book of Uncommon Prayer. Used with permission.)

Many of us live in urbanized places where there are no meadows in which to dance or, if there are meadows in view, we do not use them for this happy purpose which God must surely have ordained for them. But our spirits, through faith, can take us to such a place and set our feet in joyous motion.

Dancing in the meadows of God’s forgiveness. It’s a refreshing thought.

~ Bert Johnston
Visit me at www.bertjohnston.com.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Perfectionist

According to A. J. Jacobs, the author of The Know-It-All, who read his way through all 33,000 pages of The Encyclopedia Brittanica, Honore Balzac was a perfectionist. He nearly bankrupted himself making changes to his manuscripts after the printer’s deadlines.

That got my attention. I am currently bogged down in the proof reading and reformatting of my novel, Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough, and it’s time to get on with it. My cover designer promises a finished product is within sight. The proofing and formatting will then be all that will stand between me and the print-on-demand publisher who will issue a paperback version for the general market.

Problem is, as though proofing and formatting isn’t enough of a chore, I keep finding small ways to improve the text. A change of word here, a minor deletion there. I’ve spent three long days getting half-way through it. If it ever makes it into print, it will be a better book than the earlier Kindle version.

But now there’s this Balzac thing. Of course there’s no way I can compare Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough to The Human Comedy, but Balzac’s work habits are nevertheless a warning to me. I’ve been labeled a perfectionist before, and the thought of ruin-by-procrastination should be enough to reform me. Strike that. Make it “enough to set me straight.”

Oh, hell!

Monday, June 8, 2009

JQA - Procrastination


One of the things I’ve learned about John Quincy Adams in my recent reading is that, through most of his adult life, he had a strong interest in religion. He rose early and read several chapters of the Bible during his pre-breakfast regimen of long walks, long swims, and the reading of the classics.

Adams read voraciously. Along with the classics, history and the Bible, he enjoyed reading sermons and theology. He was also a church-goer. During his years as secretary of state and president, he attended three services of worship on Sundays: morning, afternoon and evening--Unitarian, Episcopal and Presbyterian. And these were not our modern, hour-long services.

Then Adams went home and critiqued the sermons in his journal. Once a professor of oratory at Harvard as well as a theology buff, his standards were not always met. Paul C. Nagel, his biographer, remarks that “the homiletical powers of Washington’s clergy were not of the highest order.” Hard to imagine in this day of prestigious capital-city pulpits, but Washington was then a mud-street village. (At least they had clergy. They had no dentist.)

By most norms, Adams displayed unusual religious commitment, yet not until 1826 did he make his own confession of faith. At the age of 59 he united with the Quincy church, where his forebears had worshiped for almost 200 years. He acknowledged he was about 30 years late.

That’s what I call unholy procrastination.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

JQA – What a ball!


One of my favorite biographies ever has been David McCullough’s life of John Adams. Recently I’ve moved forward a generation to read Paul C. Nagel’s biography of John Quincy Adams. The son, it appears, inherited all of his father’s brusque and contentious personality and enlarged upon it.

A brilliant scholar and accomplished diplomat, John Q. Adams was less successful as a politician. Serving as Monroe’s secretary of state in the years leading up to the presidential election of 1824, he held the second most powerful position in the land. It wasn’t enough. He hoped to be elevated to the presidency, as three of his predecessors had, but he had scruples that are entirely foreign to our generation. He wanted to be called into the position by the House of Representatives, who then elected presidents, without campaigning for the position or even acknowledging his ambition for it.

After persisting in this high-minded approach for most of 1823, he finally found a way to throw his hat into the ring without quite acknowledging it. His strongest rival for the position was Andrew Jackson, who was not timid about admitting his own ambition. On January 8, 1824, John Quincy and Louisa Adams threw a ball honoring the 9th anniversary of Jackson’s defeat of the British at New Orleans. Adams’ goal was to gain the attention of a lot of people and to maneuver Jackson into settling for the vice-presidency.

An estimated one thousand people attended the ball at the Adams residence. Wow! The Adams home was admittedly a large one where John Quincy and Laura did a lot of entertaining, but one thousand people? It raises two questions in my mind, the first being: this was supposedly a ball, but how could that many people crowd into even a large home and leave enough space for anyone to dance?

My second question is, what did this big shindig cost? It was a large campaign investment for a man who did not even admit he was campaigning.

The irony is that it didn’t change a thing with Jackson. He couldn’t decline the honor of the ball, but he could and did refuse to lower his own sights and close down his campaign for the presidency.

What a ball! And all for a victory that was fleeting and sour. It makes me look again at my own goals and priorities. What price will I pay for that which does not satisfy and does not last?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Washington Revisited


One of my all time favorite authors is David McCullough. I’ve recently read his Brave Companions. Mostly a collection of biographical essays on a remarkable variety of people, it also contains an article on Washington, D.C., the city where McCullough lives, a city he clearly loves.

Washington is, he reminds us, a city known for politics and government, but deserving of being known for its many other features. Among these are its architectural and historical buildings. McCullough cites Blair House, built in 1824, where President Truman rushed to an upstairs window in his underwear to find that a would-be assassin and a private in the White House police had been shot as he napped.

He describes Octagon House, where President James and Dolly Madison lived for six months after the British burned the White House in 1814 and where the Treaty of Ghent was signed in the circular parlor over the main entrance.

He names the palatial red-brick house in Georgetown, once a summer residence for Ulysses S. Grant and, many years later, the bachelor quarters of the young New Dealers who made up Franklin Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust.”

He describes the eloquent headquarters of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, once a prestigious apartment house in which Andrew Mellon occupied the top floor. He names the house near Dupont Circle where Alice Roosevelt Longworth presided over the top level of Washington society; and more.

My wife, Betty, who also read McCullough’s book, agrees with me that it makes us want to return to Washington, where we spent so many days off some years ago when I was the interim pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in nearby Annapolis. “How did we miss all that?” she asks.

We missed it because we were so engaged in seeing another non-political side of Washington: the diverse attractions of its many museums.

McCullough knows you have to live in Washington to take it all in. I agree with his thought that the politicians who can’t wait to get out of town when the House or Senate shuts down might learn something useful if they became better acquainted with the city they seem just to camp out in.

~Bert Johnston
Visit me at www.bertjohnston.com

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Staycation


This week my son Mike and his wife Mary have been enjoying what Mike is calling a “staycation”—a stay-where-you-are vacation without any travel. Mike has been telling about it in almost daily posts to his blog, The View from the Roof. (Yes, I borrowed from him in naming my own blog.)

Mike and Mary and Beans, their miniature Boston terrier, live in a condo in downtown Indianapolis. I had supposed that they were already well-acquainted with the city, for they have lived there for several years and they are great weekend walkers. Their staycation blog, however, reveals that Indianapolis, a city I know hardly at all, has a wealth of cultural, recreational and culinary treasures, many of which Mike and Mary are discovering and enjoying for the first time during this week.

On just one day (Wednesday), The View from the Roof tells of a mouth-watering lunch at The Creation Café, located in a century-old church overlooking the Indianapolis Canal Walk, part of an ambitious public works project that bankrupted the state of Indiana in 1841. (Take heart, California.)

At the Creation Café Mike and Mary discovered Horse Piss beer, brewed in Louisville, “we hope not too close to Churchill Downs,” and Stone Ruination IPA beer. Not being a beer aficionado, I never realized how creative small breweries can be in naming their products.

On this same staycation day, M & M went on to the Indianapolis Central Library, where they saw two newly-installed (April) sculptures, also creatively named--thinmanlittlebird.” One was the thin man, abstract but recognizable in the picture Mike posted, and the other was the little bird, hardly discernible as he perches on a humongous bronze donut.

Then, on to the American Legion Mall, down which the Central Library faces, to see the memorials to servicemen in American wars. And that’s just one day--a long day and an interesting blog.

Their experience gives me a new appreciation for Indianapolis. It also prompts me to wonder, what does Mobile have to show me that I haven’t seen in the six years I’ve lived just across the bay?

I can hardly take a “staycation,” since I’m retired and am supposedly at leisure every day of every week. But I could get up off my duff, find a good city guidebook, and take an occasional day to mine the unsuspected riches that undoubtedly lie beneath the surface of the city I see so superficially in occasional visits to the library, the mall or the eye and ear clinic.

Now ask yourself: what is waiting just to be discovered and enjoyed where you live?

~ Bert Johnston
Visit my web site: www.bertjohnston.com

Saturday, May 16, 2009

My Theme Is . . .


David McCullough, in his introduction to Brave Companions: Portraits in History, remarks that he is often asked about his current writing, “What is your theme?” He confesses that, in the early stages of a project, he rarely can say. “To find the answer is one of the chief reasons for undertaking the story,” he writes.

What a relief to hear a veteran writer make such a confession! I am learning that
stories tend to write themselves as their characters take on a life of their own, so as I plow through the fourth draft of the novel I am now writing, I am still asking that question about its theme.

At one moment I think
The Tattoo is about ambition and the things to which it drives us. That’s the story of Gus, my antagonist. But then I wonder if it isn’t about trust, and what happens when it fails? That’s the story of Georgia, who has lost her trust in Matt.

Or maybe it’s about persistence, which is the story of Lettie, the private investigator who is trying to clear Matt’s name. Then there's Lettie's husband, Barry, the associate pastor who wouldn’t think of trying to unseat the senior minister. Loyalty is a worthy theme.

But in the end it comes around to the beleaguered Dr. Matt. He’s just flawed enough that I can’t say his overarching theme is the triumph of virtue, though that comes close. Where his marriage to Georgia is concerned, in the subplot, it’s the triumph of love.

Well, when the story has been fully told, I trust I’ll know. And that’s what motivates me to persist in my writing of The Tattoo.

Post script: I could also blog about titles.
This book started out with the working title, Megachurch, but I am now calling it The Tattoo. In the end I may add an adjective: The Preacher’s Tattoo, or The Hidden Tattoo or That Damn Tattoo. Do any of these grab you?

~ Bert Johnston
Visit me at www.bertjohnston.com

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Line Dancers.


Last week Kay Korb threw a party. Kay, who is the marketing director for Westminster Village where Betty and I are living in comfortable retirement, entertains the residents periodically as a way of generating names for her prospect list. Last week the Village line dancers topped the entertainment.

Ruth Eddins, a resident along with her retired Methodist preacher husband, recruited the first line dancers about six years ago. Practicing twice a week, she soon had a group of about fifteen, almost none of whom had ever line danced before. She continues to recruit and train new line dancers as members “retire” and newcomers take their places. The group now numbers over twenty.

Kay likes to send this group out to perform in other venues as a way of demonstrating that life at Westminster Village keeps us young. She always advertises the fact that the average age of the line dancers is well over 80. If they have any of the aches and pains that go with being that old, they leave them at the edge of the dance floor and step out as lively and well coordinated as if their average age was 40-something.

I know one gentleman who, in his late 70’s, found the line dancers having so much fun that he parked his cane in the corner and joined them in their practice. He danced with them for four years and his cane still stands neglected in the corner.

Admittedly, these aren’t the Rockets, but they come close enough to merit the admiration of their fellow residents at Westminster Village as well as the prospects that Kay sends them out to impress. Well done, Ruth. Keep ‘em stepping.

~ Bert Johnston.
Visit me at www.bertjohnston.com.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

If the Present Seems Unstable.


Some of us still linger on with first-hand memories of the Great Depression, when unemployment rose as high as thirty percent and dispossessed or desperate people migrated west across the plains, the mountains and the deserts in rusty old cars and trucks, carrying as much as they could of their household necessities and treasures. They sought a new and more promising life in Oklahoma or California or someplace else far removed from what had once been home.

These were the years of my childhood. They were Spartan years, for the most part, but I remember our mother’s worry more than any real privation. Our father half-soled our Thom McAn shoes with kits from McCrary’s five-and-dime store, and a ten-cent ice cream cone was a treat for a special occasion. There was too much corn meal mush and not enough beef steak, but we never supposed that meat should be an everyday necessity.

Most of the people we knew were living on the same narrow track. In retrospect, I realize we were poor by today’s standards, but we didn’t know it. What I remember most is that we were happy. I recall long family walks on Sunday afternoons in the years when we had no car, and picnics in the park in later years when Dad’s used Oldsmobile opened up a wider world to us. The car was a symbol of better times and less for Mother to worry about.

Now some of that worry is back. As savings shrink and investments go sour, I take heart in the words of another of Kenneth Phifer’s poetic prayers: “If the present seems too unstable to trust / and the future impossible to discern, / Uphold me on my memories. Amen.”* Yes, Amen to that. Memories need not be just wistful. They can be reassuring.

~ Bert Johnston.
Visit me at www.bertjohnston.com.

* From Kenneth G. Phifer, A Book of Uncommon Prayer. Used with permission.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Critics


Every other Wednesday morning I meet with three or four friends at our local Barnes and Noble store, where we sit in comfortable chairs facing each other across a large square coffee table, in a nook surrounded by cook books on three sides and racks of self-help books stretching out beyond us on the fourth side. We are an informal, unorganized and sometimes downright disorganized critique group, members also of the larger Baldwin Writers Group that meets one Saturday each month.

Though we enjoy each others’ company, the common interest that brings us together is that we are writers. We meet to critique and encourage each other in our writing.

We are a mixed bunch. Betty writes blank verse and reads two or three new poems each time we meet. Her quest is usually to find just the right word or phrase in a line or two she has not yet perfected to her satisfaction.

The rest of us write prose fiction, and we are seeking help with characterization, plot and writing style. Apart from our common interest, we share few similarities.

Nolan is leading us a chapter at a time through a fantasy novel whose major characters are members of a modern polygamy cult.

Phil’s novel takes us back to the antics of a 1940’s small-town baseball team and the tensions of a wife who doesn’t want her husband to play ball on Sundays.

I am struggling through an early draft of The Tattoo, a contemporary novel set in a Mobile megachurch.

Reilly, the fifth member of this group, has been absent of late, struggling with health issues. We miss him, for he is our severest critic. A writer mostly of short stories, always ending in an unexpected twist, Reilly also sometimes ventures a poem, and he is the only one among us who has a published novel for sale across the room on B&N’s fiction shelves.

Barnes and Noble doesn’t profit much from the four to six hours a month we spend in their comfortable corner. One of us may occasionally buy a book, but we do our more profitable business at their coffee counter.

Friday, April 24, 2009

All Those John Johnstons

Twenty years or so ago, when I was digging into my family’s history, I came to a dead end with the Johnstons. I could trace Dagues and Swifts, my mother’s side of the family, back to pre-revolutionary America, and the Miles ancestors of my father’s maternal line nearly as far. No such luck with the Johnstons.

My great-grandfather, John Johnston, came to America from Ireland as a young man in 1850. His father’s name was thought to be William, but I could never document that or get beyond it. When I looked at the surviving genealogical records for County Armaugh, the trail ended. I found some fifty John Johnstons (yes, all spelled with a “t”) and almost as many Williams. I could never identify which were my ancestors.

Though I have been called “Bert” all my life, I was named John Johnston at birth. That is how my doctors, my banker and the IRS know me.

A few days ago I checked into the Premier Medical Center, a large Mobile eye clinic with thirty or forty doctors, at least six or eight waiting rooms, and perhaps fifty examining rooms. After a short wait, a young woman called my name and led me through another waiting room to an examining room. Her first question was to ask if I was there for my post-op appointment, a puzzling question since it had been half a year or more since I had minor eye surgery.

“Aren’t you Dr. Duffy’s patient?” she asked.

“No. Dr. Vick did my surgery, but I’m here to see Dr. King.”

“You are John Johnston, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Age 62?”

“You flatter me.”

To everyone’s surprise, there were two John Johnstons (yes, both spelled with a “t”), with appointments at Premier Medical Center that morning.

Our family has been fond of the names John and William. There has been one of each in five consecutive generations since 1850. My father and uncle, my brother and I, and two of my sons carry on the tradition. It’s about to end, however. We have run out of boys in my sons’ families. I have a grandson named William, but no John.

The Premier Medical Center will be relieved.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Pensioners’ Lunch.


Last Wednesday two dozen or so retired church workers, their wives, husbands and widows met at Ivey’s Restaurant in Robertsdale, Alabama, for our annual lunch as guests of the Presbyterian Board of Pensions. Most of those present were ministers and their wives or widows. One was a retired church secretary who came with her husband, and one was the widow of the sexton who served the Spring Hill Church for thirty years. She came with her daughter.

We seniors look forward to this annual gathering for three reasons. First of all, it is the only time of the year when many of us see each other, and we enjoy this social aspect of the occasion. We are a compatible group.

We also come, let us admit it, because a meal at Ivey’s is worth the drive to Robertsdale. This year the restaurant offered a choice of three seafood dinners and one each of chicken and pork. Ivey’s is a few miles north of the Gulf of Mexico--but “south of the salt line,” as Eugene Walter would say--so fresh seafood is a specialty.

The real draw, however, is Clark Simmons, our host.
Clark is a tall, good looking and personable young man who is the Regional Representative of our Pension Board, i.e., “our guy” at the Board. He stands ready, twelve months of the year, to inform us or assist us with any question or matter related to our pensions and medical coverage.

Every year Clark reports on the financial solvency behind our retirement benefits. He’s a straight talker who tells it like it is and whom we always believe. He usually reports a “good experience credit” to our pensions. A raise, in other words.

This year Clark had good news and bad news. The bad news was no surprise. Though the Board’s investments did better than the market as a whole, their value dropped noticeably in the last year. Without a good experience in the market, there can be no raise this July, and likely not for several Julys to come. “Plan accordingly,” Clark advised us.

The good news is that there will be no cut. Our benefits are still adequately underwritten, our pensions still secure for years to come. That’s as much as we dare hope for in these lean times.

Hooray for the Pensions Board! I wish they were managing my personal portfolio.

And thanks, Clark, for the good lunch and report. I slept well Wednesday night.

~ Bert Johnston
Visit me at www.bertjohnston.com.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wanderers and Householders


Recently the daily meditation in the devotional magazine our church distributes began with an appealing quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “May we live here like strangers and make the world not a house, but an inn, in which we sup and lodge, expecting to be on our journey tomorrow.”

When I ran across this thought I was much attracted to it. It was a day in which I had been distracted and/or distressed by several concerns ranging from the security (or possible insecurity) of my retirement investments to the appeal (or possible lack of it) of the daily menu in the Westminster Village dining room.

Spurgeon’s words recalled to mind the revival hymn we sang with fervor in my young adult years: “This world is not my home, I’m merely passing through./My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue./An angel beckons me from heaven’s open door/And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

That’s soothing to the spirit, but dangerous to the soul. It suggests we are merely guests in this world with few responsibilities. We don’t even have to make the bed we sleep in.

Not so. We are guest workers, charged with taking care of this planet, sometimes with doing the dirty work of cleaning up its messes. We are stewards, responsible for the careful use of resources and the opportunity to use them for the good of others. We are brothers and sisters, living at home in the family of nations and charged to keep the house clean and live at peace with one another.

In the end, isn’t that more satisfying than to think we’re just wanderers on the earth, responsible for nothing more than to pay our board bill and tip the waiter?

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Using the Followers Widget

Align Left
The bloggers system has widgets and gadgets. Darned if I know the difference, but today I want to call your attention to the “followers widget.” I’ve moved mine to the top of the sidebar where you can find it easily.

Several readers of this blog have told me they enjoy reading it—which is great, because I’m writing it to be enjoyed. At least one friend has wondered how long his subscription will last. Actually, there is no expiration date. You can read it as long as I write it, and I’m just getting up steam. I hope it (and I) will last a long time.

You can always read The View from the Back Pew by calling up my web site--www.bertjohnston.com--and clicking on the blog button. That’s easy, and you can make it even easier, once there, by clicking on your “Favorites” button. It saves typing in the URL each time.

The next question is, how can you know you'll see a new blog when you do that? Some bloggers post a new blog every day. Whew! That’s a tall order. The successful ones use guest bloggers to keep the content fresh. The others tend to get boring, for lack of something new to say.

Because I don’t want to bore you seven days a week, I
post a new blog every four to six days. If you don’t want to look every day for something that isn’t always there, the bloggers system offers up the “followers widget.”

I wish they had called it something else. To the Christian, “followers” suggests “disciples,” and I’m not asking for that kind of commitment. The followers widget simply offers you a way to follow The View from the Back Pew without checking in every day. Use the widget, and every time I post the blog it will be delivered to your computer like your weekly newspaper, only slightly more often.

That’s the benefit to you. What’s the benefit to me? A growing number of designated followers (regular readers) suggests an interesting blog and draws still more readers. And readers motivate
a writer to keep writing.

Telling your friends about this blog will serve the same purpose. If you do both, it will be like giving me a double dip of triple chocolate ice cream. I'll love you forever.

So find that widget, beneath my picture, and click on the “Follow” button. You’ll have a choice of following this blog publicly or anonymously, and there’s an escape button for the day (far off, I hope) when you’d like a way out.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

P.S. Since today's is really just a housekeeping blog, I’ll follow it in a day or two with “Wanderers and Householders.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Persistence


Lately I’ve been letting two magazine subscriptions lapse, unrenewed. The persistence of their subscription departments has impressed me. Between the two, I’ve had six or seven “last chance” notices. “Last chance” doesn’t mean last opportunity to keep the magazines coming. It means last chance to take them up on this or that special offer.

The appeal that came this week said “4th notice” in 12 or 14 point red letters at the top center of the envelope. Much larger letters in the lower right corner, white on a blazing red rectangle, said “LAST CHANCE.” Then below that in smaller letters, white on black, “for our BIGGEST Savings.”

The persistence of these folks impresses me. I’m sure they’ve done market studies to determine the cost effectiveness of continuing to send out all that mail. Obviously, they don’t want to lose even one subscriber. In ways I can well understand, they will be a little poorer without my participation in their publishing endeavor.

In this Holy Week we are reminded of the Good Shepherd who risked it all so that not one sheep need be lost. Meaning one soul. The big differences are that no one but the Son of God could pay so great a price, that the One making the offer is the One who paid it, and that Jesus heads up a non-profit organization. Here’s a persistent offer to which we must not turn a deaf ear.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Monday, April 6, 2009

Professional Discounts.


Almost every week I find in my mailbox a pitch from some magazine company offering a fantastic discount to new subscribers. This week it was from Newsweek. They cited their annual cover price ($267.30, not counting sales tax) and offered a bargain one-year subscription for $25.

Now I’m smart enough to know that there is always a substantial difference between newstand price and subscription price but, whatever the usual subscription price may be, the $25 offer is an almost unbelievable bargain if you’re in the market for a weekly news magazine. Unfortunately for Newsweek, I am not.

In bright red letters near the top of the subscription form I read that “This 90% professional discount is adjusted to reflect your guaranteed low rate.” The “professional discount” offer raises two questions in my mind.

First, how did they identify me as a professional? I’ve never claimed to be one. I’m a retired clergyman who has always thought of my occupation as a calling, not a profession.

Second, I wonder if Archie, who tends the flower beds around my apartment at Westminster Village, merits the same price consideration as a professional? Maybe he does. Maybe gardeners are included in the ever-broadening term “professional.” Or does Archie get a different notice reading (in red ink, of course) “This 90% day laborer’s rate…”?

Perhaps Newsweek will run a note of clarification in their next issue. Pity I won’t see it.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell's Breakthrough

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My Favorite Contemporary Poet


The Baldwin Writers Group, to which I belong, meets one Saturday a month at the Public Library in Daphne, Alabama. Betty Ivey is the club’s poet laureate. At our March meeting, she read two poems, each less than a page in length, each treating with imagination and insight some small slice of life that less attentive people, me included, tend not to see or think about until Betty puts the spotlight on them.

Betty called her first poem “Three Figureheads.” It begins “On the top deck of the cruise ship,/High above the prow,/A lounge with walls of glass.” In this cruise ship lounge Betty observes figureheads of a mermaid and Lord Nelson staring straight ahead “Out of their black painted eyes.” Then she sees the woman garbed all in pink, even to “A hat crocheted in pink,” who sits between them. She, too, stares into the distance, just as immovable, just as unaware of the life that stirs around her. Lord Nelson. Mermaid. Lady in pink. Three of a kind. Who but Betty would have noticed?

Betty’s second poem was “The Cow Left Out in the Hurricane.” Poor cow, we think. But after the storm, when all around her is found to be torn asunder and rain soaked, there “…by the pasture gate,/The cow stood chewing on her cud.”

Betty often injects a straight-faced humor into her poems. A recent one, without a title, begins with the line “My husband plays viola in a string quartet…” and quietly celebrates the day the wife forgets her hearing aid.

If Betty ever publishes a book of her poems, I’ll stand in line to buy three copies.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Saturday, March 28, 2009

When Hope Trembles Naked

The late Kenneth G. Phifer, when he was pastor of the St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, authored A Book of Uncommon Prayer. I treasure it both for Dr. Phifer's spiritual perception and his poetic style. My wife and I often read the book together in the late evening hour before we go to bed.

A few nights ago, reading a prayer labeled "I Am Impatient" (and aren't we all?), I was struck by these lines. I've gone back to them several times for a rereading:

There is a time . . .
to wait until the night has gone,
and the dawn has come once more,
and hope trembles naked in the chill of morning.

Words written nearly thirty years ago, but how expessive of the time we're living in, when we wait so impatiently for justice and compassion to overrule greed and repression, for wars to cease and our economy to recover, and for raw political ambition to give way to a desire to serve the common good.

I struggle for faith and patience in every dark night, and shiver in naked hope whenever a new day appears to be dawning.

~ Bert Johnston, Author of Parson Campbell's Breakthrough

Monday, March 23, 2009

An Invitation I Can’t Refuse


In response to my post of March 13 (Address Unknown—And Off the Map), Mo commented, “A small blurb about the plot of your book would be good.” Thank you, Mo. I thought you’d never ask. This is the story of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough:

In 1953, on his first Sunday as a pastor, newly-minted minister Eddie Campbell discovers his leading elder’s racial bigotry and realizes that the transformation of Mr. Melon will be his major challenge at Pear Valley. Eddie’s more liberal views put him at serious odds with his elder, but over time he achieves a tenuous truce. In 1961, when a long-lost Navy buddy shows up at Easter with his wife, the trust dissolves and the whole congregation is affronted. The story climaxes with the Christmas Day torching of a nearby black church, and ends with a major act of generosity and an unexpected gesture of reconciliation.

Along the way, Eddie strives to be independent of his indulgent mother and his wealthy Blue Grass in-laws. He discovers that, though his wife Myra’s ethical culture is sometimes at odds with his own, she will steer him straight when his own commitments falter.

There it is, in brief, Mo. I hope you’ll be one of the first 100,000 people to read it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mainline and Emergent


The view of the Church-with-a-Capital-C is not always encouraging as I see it from the distance of my back pew.
I see it from a better vantage point in our local Spanish Fort Presbyterian Church, where pastors Julian Walthall and Monnie Anderson labor creatively and successfully to lift our eyes to the world around us and to bring many helping hands to the church’s outreach ministries to our community.
But in my retirement I am mostly a spectator, except for my cheering them on and the prayers I raise up from the distance of my back pew.
Though I see evidence of creative ministry across my denomination, it is a reality of this age that the mainline churches, which seemed so vital in the heady days of growth in the 1950’s and 1960’s, are shedding membership with every annual report.
These seem to be the glory days for fundamentalists and Pentecostals, to the extent that we who are still called “mainline” appear to be on the sidelines.
Which brings to mind what George Buttrick, New York pastor and author, said fifty years or so ago, after our more conservative southern Presbyterians succeeded in banning him from the podium of a major engagement at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina. During a speaking engagement at Union Seminary in Virginia a student asked him how he felt about such shunning. He said, “What the fundamentalists don’t understand is that I, too, am a fundamentalist, for I know what is fundamental.
From my back pew I am beginning to notice the emergent church movement in our mainline denominations, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Lutheran among others. Let’s cheer them on as they try to uncover what is truly fundamental to the mission and ministry of the Church in this century. If they succeed, they will bestow new meaning to the word “mainline,” and since it's about obedience more than status, they may not even pause from their labors to notice.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Address Unknown—and Off the Map

My first attempt at a novel lies buried in a computer file, sort of like the way the house in which I was born is now buried deep under an Interstate slope in Pennsylvania. Working at a more moderate pace following a National Novel Writing Month marathon, in a few months I had a manuscript of 95,000 words making up what I thought was a complete story. I tweaked it through three or four drafts, then printed it out and gave copies to two friends who agreed to critique it.

Two or three weeks later Helen Wood and Celeste Neuffer, both of whom were capable editors, sat down with me and began by saying, “This is not a novel.” Some words of a more encouraging nature followed, but the gist of their assessment was: too many plots, too many characters, too many settings. An epic, maybe, but not a novel.

I’m a tolerably good listener. I learned a lot from Helen and Celeste that night and in the months that followed. I also took a course at the University of South Alabama, bought and read eight or ten books on writing, and started my second novel—actually my first, if Address Unknown is counted out.

Twenty months and many drafts later, my volunteer editors judged Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough worthy of consideration by a publisher. Publication is easier desired than achieved, of course, but the novel now seems destined for publication as a paperback by a division of amazon.com. What it still lacks is a satisfactory cover design. If you have a p.c. or a Kindle you need not wait. You can download from Payloadz or Kindle Books today.

Now I’m writing Megachurch, and I hope to have a publishable manuscript by the end of this year.

If there are any other late-blooming novelists within the reach of this blog, I would enjoy hearing from you. Indeed, I’d be happy to hear from any reader.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Son Who Begat His Father


Last week my long-awaited website made its debut at www.bertjohnston.com. I have my son Mike and granddaughter Katie to thank for the website. They brainstormed it during our Christmas holidays in December, and now it’s a reality. I’m pleased with it, and hope readers of this blog will check it out and offer your comments on what you find.

It was Mike who launched me into my present life as a writer of fiction. On the night of October 27, two and a half years ago, he called me on the phone from Indiana and challenged me to write a novel.

Ever since his years as a student at Maryville College, Mike has shown promise as a writer, but he sensibly decided to earn his living in the regular-paycheck world of industry. He called that night to say that at last he was going to write the novel that had been ricocheting around in his head for some years. November, he said, was National Novel Writing Month and he was about to join the thousands of NaNoWriMo folks who would try to write at least 50,000 words of a new novel in those thirty days.

“Join me,” Mike said. “You just need to write first draft stuff. Get the words out and worry about style later.”

“Mike,” I said, “I have no idea for a plot and no characters to write about. Besides, I’ve just started re-reading War and Peace. That project is enough for November.” After a sleepless night I phoned him back and said, “Okay, Mike, you’re on. I’ve got some characters and an idea for a plot.”

November went by in a blur of nearly sleepless nights and killer days. I could never survive such a month again, but as December 1st rolled in I had written 60,000 words, and I was hooked. War and Peace is still sitting neglected on the shelf. So are those 60,000 words, for that matter, but that was just a trial run. I’ve written better since, and I'm still writing.

Now I'm waiting for Mike's novel. Of course I have an advantage over him when it comes to writing. I have the leisure of sitting in unhurried retirement in my back pew.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Meet Eugene Walter

Until I moved to South Alabama I didn't know the late Eugene Walter, whom I mentioned in my “Cat Person” blog (February 16). Walter, a one-time Mobile celebrity, was one of those unrestrained cat people who loved Mardi Gras, but never needed a special season to throw a party.

I first met Eugene in the pages of Katherine Clark’s Milking the Moon, an oral biography (now out of print but available) in which Eugene talks and Katherine sorts it out and records it. I’m not often a repeat reader, but I’ve read Milking the Moon three times in the last five years.

Eugene grew up in the 1920’s and 1930’s in his grandparents’ home in the days when Mobile was an easy-going Catholic town. During World War Two he spent three years at the Arctic Circle as an Army cryptographer, and then went to New York to make his mark in the world. Still in his early twenties, he moved on to Paris, where he became associated with George Plimpton in the editing and publishing of the Paris Review. He met almost every celebrity who passed through Paris, and was a favorite party planner for those who wanted to entertain them.

By his mid-thirties Walter was in Rome, working for Princess Caetani in the publishing of Botteghe Oscure. Because she seldom thought to pay him and he was too much of a gentleman to ask, he moonlighted as a translator, wrote a column for the Rome Daily American and became involved in the early stages of the Italian movie industry. He was versatile. He translated scripts, designed sets, dyed cloth and made costumes, wrote songs, and acted in dozens of films. His best role was as a supporting actor in Fellini’s 8 ½. Fellini became his favorite director and a good friend.

Except on occasional long days devoted to shooting films, Eugene’s workday ended no later than sunset and evenings were devoted to parties—the ones he became known for hosting and the ones he attended as a sought-after guest. Eugene knew how to give meaning to the word “party,” even when he was so poor he served peanut butter and fresh bakery bread.

Near the end of his life, Eugene returned to Mobile, but it wasn’t the town he had known as a boy. During the second World War the Baptists had moved in as riveters and ship fitters, and life in Mobile was just not the same. But, he was home again, and he still could plan a good party and enjoy his unplanned, spontaneous life. He died at the age of 76.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Time to Remember

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day observed throughout Christendom as the beginning of a season that will bring us, in six weeks, to the betrayal, arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. We call the season Lent. It is the time of penitence and self-restraint that follows Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day when some Christians enjoy a wild last pig out before they must give up their favorite foods, habits and sins.

The so-called “high” churches—Catholics of various sorts and Episcopalians—have observed Ash Wednesday almost since the Year One. My background is “low” church, but in my lifetime Lent has become more intentionally observed in Presbyterian and other Protestant churches, to the benefit, we hope, of our faith and discipleship.

So this evening Betty and I will join a goodly number of our fellow believers in walking down the aisle of the Spanish Fort Presbyterian Church to have the sign of the cross traced on our foreheads with ashes as the mark of our sorrow for sin. Now that I sit in the back pew it’s a longer walk than it used to be, but that will give me more time to remember that, yes, even though I was respectably sober on Fat Tuesday, I too am a sinner.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell's Breakthrough

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mardi Gras

A lot of the cat people are stirring in Mobile and Baldwin County, Alabama, just now. With just three days to go, Mardi Gras is in full swing. Parades and masked balls compete with one another for time and space, and the street department in Mobile is busy sweeping up overlooked beads and moon pies, thrown from the parade floats to crowds vying to catch them.

These are not my kind of cat people. They are more playful and stay up later at night, and what they drink is not always milk.

For most of my life I’ve lived far away from Washington, Pennsylvania, where I was born, but a trace of the inhibitions bred into me in that Calvinist stronghold still lingers. I enjoy Mardi Gras, but as a watcher, not a participant, and I watch from a safe distance. Mardi Gras brings out the crowds, and the only place I’ve ever enjoyed crowds is in church.

So I participate in Mardi Gras from the comfort of my easy chair. I watch the parades on television. I don’t catch any beads or moon pies, but that’s all right. North of the salt line, where I came from, we didn’t live in expectation of such largess.

~ Bert Johnston, Author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough


Monday, February 16, 2009

Cat People

When I admit I’m a cat person, I’m saying more than that I’m a lover of cats. If that’s what I mean, I’d have to say also that I’m a dog person. The late Eugene Walter, a too-little-known writer whom Mobile shared for many years with Paris and Rome, used to describe himself as a cat and monkey person, by which he meant he was a free spirit. Not what I’d say about myself, though I wish I could.

Walter was a party person who could throw a memorable bash in a Roman palazzo when he was in the chips or in his small apartment with peanut butter and an assortment of fresh bakery bread when he was broke. Sorry, but that isn’t me.

I’m a cat person in the sense that, like Walter, I believe people have more than nine lives--that every seven years or so we shed a skin and start a new one. Not so for many folks, but true for me.

Elton Trueblood, a popular Quaker author of another era, wrote that we live our lives in chapters. Soon after I retired, I wrote my memoirs, strictly for family circulation, titled Lines in Pleasant Places. There are fourteen chapters, each with a different setting. I enjoyed each chapter as I lived it, and the life I’m living now would require a fifteenth chapter.

Now that I’ve moved to the back pew, I’ve gone from writing sermons (and memoirs) to writing novels. A new chapter, another life. How that came about is a story for another blog, but the point for today is that I’m sort of like my own cat, Walter Mitty. Every now and then he moves to a different chair.

~ Bert Johnston, author of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough