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CONFUCIUS SAY

BLOG #21, SERIES 7
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
CONFUCIUS SAY
May 25, 2016

Many years university in Texas, we experienced a change in presidents. Naturally, I was more than a little curious about what my new boss might be like. Would I like him? Respect him? And would he like, respect, and appreciate me?

Having heard that he’d already moved into his office, I wandered over to the administration building to see what I could find out. The office was open, and the presidential secretary was absent from her office. Timidly, I walked into the president’s office, hoping I’d be able to learn a lot about the new CEO by what was hanging on the walls and positioned on his desk or on cabinets and tables.

I could find nothing! Not even the usual diplomas validating academic expertise. Couldn’t believe it: must have been just a rumor that he’d moved in. But then . . . I spied something underneath the clear plexiglass on his desk. I had to sidle around the desk to the presidential chair before I could identify what was on that small piece of paper.

As close as I can remember, this is about what it said: “The man who hires me will find a lot done after a year, a great deal in two years, and everything in three.” – Confucius

I was still trying to digest its significance when the new president walked in and caught me snooping. Smiling, he said, “Oh, I can see you found it!”

And that started our friendship and mutual involvements. He was easily the most exciting and motivating administrator I have ever worked for. Because of the climate he created, the seven years of his tenure there resulted in the seven most significant years of my own academic career.

But back to the quotation by Confucius. Miraculously, still alive after 2,500 years [he lived from 551-479 B.C. in ancient China].

So how did Confucius know, way back then, that man’s maximum achievement potential has such a short life-span? It’s true, for ever since I first read that small piece of paper, I’ve been wondering why it is that human beings tend to exhaust their growth potential in but three years. In western culture, about the only related aphorism I can think of is, “A new broom sweeps clean” —but it doesn’t tell us how long it will sweep clean.

In my own life, I’ve found that change (especially when it is also geographical) dramatically increases my store of adrenaline, the euphoria that produces such a high. But I’ve also noted that such adrenalin boosts only last so long before they cease to be much of a factor.

Which presupposes a grave danger to employers. If indeed, employees exhaust their maximum creativity in three short years, why keep them on afterwards? Of course, one reason for doing so is that an institution would quickly burn out if all its employees were simultaneously racing in the red zone. This is why the ideal organization contains about one-third young Turks, one-third those who provide thoughtful balance, and one-third corporate memory. The eager beavers can tank an institution virtually overnight; the middle employees are still strong contributors to growth but refuse to be pushed into decisions before their consequences are well thought out. But the veterans, cynical though they may be about success odds, roll their eyes as they will as they mutter, “Oh, not this again! It’ll never work!,” still are needed for their corporate memory prevents the institution from forgetting what brought them this far in the first place.

Interestingly enough, marriage too is subject to the same law of diminishing returns: honeymoon-highs burn at fever-pitch for a year, not so high the second year, and by the following year, spawn what we call “the three-year itch.”

Being aware of this three-year phenomenon helps us mitigate their effects some, especially if we come up with our own three-year-plans after one triad has passed. But rare is the Leonardo da Vinci whose creative thrust abates but little even late in life.

But why is Confucianism so alive and well today, not only in China but also in the West as well, 2500 years after the sage lived?

Stay tuned.

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THE SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARK LODGES #2

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK AND THE STANLEY HOTEL

for Nov. 16, 2011

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

To the strains of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again, our intrepid little foursome resumed our odyssey in a black Lincoln Town Car (because it’s the only car with a trunk large enough to hold three weeks’ of luggage for four people, including books and “priceless” souvenir coffee mugs picked up along the way).  We then pulled out of our long driveway onto Conifer Mountain Drive with Connie and Lucy ensconced in their backseat nests and Bob and I in the navigational cockpit.  Over time, we’ve developed a system that works well for us: one of us navigates (drawing upon maps) and reads out loud, to front and back passengers, about the history of the parks and lodges we are driving towards.  This way, when we actually arrive there, we know what is important or significant; this way it’s almost like coming to a loved home.

We owe the dream of making the Great Circle to Ken Burns and his landmark National Parks miniseries on PBS.  It was watching those riveting films that provided the impetus.  The reference sources we rely on most heavily for these blogs are Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s The National Parks, Mel White’s Complete National Parks of the United States, and Christine Barnes’ definitive two-volume work, Great Lodges of the National Parks.  Though I also refer to other works, these four books are our traveling reference bible.

Our pattern has been to first read out loud sections dealing with the founding and preservation of the national park, landmark, monument, forest, etc., first, then follow it up with the equally fascinating story of these fascinating and fragile national park lodges.  It has been gratifying to discover how many people vicariously travel with us via these blogs.  Some readers will no doubt follow in our footsteps by themselves making the Great Circle circuit, and others will content themselves with a metaphorical, almost virtual, experience.  Either way, we welcome you aboard.

So it was that as Bob Earp took the wheel for the two-hour drive to our first night’s destination, I served as tour guide and patched together the story of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Stanley Hotel.  We discovered that the mountainous area radiating out from the little town of Estes Park, because of its close proximity to Denver, had long been a popular tourist destination. The immediate magnets, of course, being 14,259 foot high Longs Peak and its shy sister, Meeker Peak, sadly ignored by many because it’s “only a thirteener.”

As we’d already discovered in our northwest national park peregrinations, invariably there were fascinating people who stepped in to preserve these natural wonders for us.  All it seems to take are one or two local visionaries to do the spade work and two or three more to spearhead the project nationally.  In the case of this particular park, as is true of virtually all other great national parks, one name towers above all others—John Muir.  Without him, one shudders to think of the fate of all these magnificent parks we tend to take for granted.  Second only in significance to Muir were Stephen Tyng Mather and his able associate, Horace Albright; this triad constitutes the founding fathers of our entire national park system, today the envy of the world.

Locally, two very different men stepped in to preserve this mountainous area for posterity: Enos Mills and Freelan O. Stanley.  And what brought both to Colorado in the first place was a deadly malady known to contemporaries as “consumption” and to us as “tuberculosis.”  Fully one-third

of Colorado residents back at the turn of the twentieth century were consumptives, each with a hacking cough that doomed them to an early death unless they managed to escape from the lowlands and settle in the brisk, invigorating, life-giving air of the mountains.

Earlier on, a member of the European nobility, the fourth Earl of Dunraven, had purchased a large tract of land near Longs Peak.  Object: to turn it into an exclusive hunting preserve for himself and his wealthy friends.  But the Earl lacked staying power.  Enter F. O. Stanley, a twin to his brother, Francis Edgar, born in Kingfield, Main. The brothers grew up, both entered the teaching profession but soon left it because of entrepreneurial ventures.  In 1884, the brothers (both inventors) fine-tuned a new film process, called Stanley Dry Plate, that revolutionized photography.  Eventually, in 1904, they’d sell it to George Eastman for $530,000.  But long before that sale, the brothers had become so fascinated with the automobile and steam-propulsion that they created their first steam-propelled auto—it became known as the “Stanley Steamer.”  They completed their first Steamer in 1897, and launched a new model in 1901.  Two years later, F. O.’s doctor told him that he’d soon be dead of consumption unless he moved into the high mountains.

 

So it was that F.O. and his wife, Flora, came to Denver; then, seeking higher yet ground, discovered Estes Park, which they promptly fell in love with.  Constitutionally incapable of remaining inactive for long, Stanley purchased from Dunraven 160 acres of land adjacent to Estes Park.  Object: to build on it a great hotel.  Stanley then hired Denver architect, T. Robert Weiger, to implement his hotel plans.  Weiger is also known as the designer of Denver’s iconic City and County Building.  Ground was broken, fall of 1907.  The Colonial Revival hotel (like Yellowstone Lake Hotel, one of the few surviving examples of neoclassical design in the wilds of the mountainous West), four stories high, was crowned by a two-layer hexagon-shaped bell tower, that has ever since been likened to a wedding gazebo atop a perfectly proportioned cake.  It was flanked by perpendicular wings at each end, and graced by a long first floor veranda with six double sets of Doric columns and Palladian windows.  Eight other separate buildings were added later.

With the nearest railroad 22 miles down Big Thompson Canyon, Stanley improved the road and imported a fleet of Stanley Steamers and Stanley Wagons to ferry guests back and forth from the railroad.  Because his auto-stage line proved so successful, Stanley is known today as “the father of auto-tourism in America.”  And the elite of America and travelers from abroad came, with their maids and nannies.  Came to this “first all electric hotel in the world” to play croquet on the front courtyard; read, chat, or dream on the veranda; take trail rides, play billiards, pool, or golf; attend concerts, vaudeville shows, balls; and be feted with fine dining (with one waiter per table).  It put Estes Park on the map.

Enos Mills, on the other hand, came from a very different background: the plains of Kansas.  He moved here when only fourteen, dying of consumption.  Like Stanley, here in the mountains, his health was restored.  He would build a hotel facility that could not have been more different from Stanley’s: the plain-looking, almost primitive Longs Peak Inn, which took in summer guests who were willing to participate in Mills’ conservative spartan lifestyle: no drinking, dancing, or card-playing, but rather take strenuous hikes, study nature, and attend lectures (three times a week, given by Mills himself).

Mills and Stanley soon discovered they shared a common passion: preserve for posterity those beautiful mountains they’d come to cherish.  Mills, in a chance meeting with John Muir in San Francisco in 1899, caught a vision for his life work: to help bring the Rocky Mountains into the fledgling national park system.  Mills and Stanley now enlisted the powerful support of Mather and Albright in Washington, D.C.  A bill to create the park (at 265,800 acres, smaller than they wanted) was introduced in Congress in 1914.  But unlike the stories of other national parks, it did not languish there—John Muir died.  Because of Muir’s support for the park, and the sentiment generated by his passing, the bill was rushed through in only a month!  It was dedicated on September 4, 1915, with both Mather and Albright in attendance.  The way the final bill was drawn, the Stanley Hotel ended up a couple of miles outside the park.

And thus was born Rocky Mountain National Park, which straddles the Continental Divide and includes more than sixty peaks 12,000 feet high or higher, 50 alpine lakes, 450 miles of streams and rivers, 355 miles of trails, and great diversity of habitat (given that its elevation ranges from a low of 7,840′ to a high of 14,259′ (Longs Peak).  It is crossed by the legendary Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous road in America (reaching 12,183′).  Massive snowfalls keep it closed during winter, so it is only open from June 1 to October.  The lower sections are open year-round.  Not surprisingly, the park is one of our nation’s most popular tourist destinations.

As for the Stanley Hotel, its very survival was for a long time in doubt.  One man, Roe Emering, somehow kept it alive during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Even after selling the hotel, the Stanleys returned here every summer; here F.O. would sit on the veranda, gaze out at the majestic mountains, and dream.  He died October 2, 1940 at the age of 91.  From 1971-1995, the hotel ownership went through a soap opera series of events (time-share schemes, lawsuits, tax problems, closure, bankruptcy), but in 1995, Grand Heritage Hotels saved it, and has lovingly restored it to its former beauty.  Today it is part of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America.

And Stephen King provided extra survival insurance: while living in nearby Boulder, King and his family discovered the Stanley, and found in it the inspiration for a book he was then writing, The Shining.  The movie, however, was filmed by Stanley Kubrick in England, with exterior shots taken at Oregon’s Timberline Lodge.  In 1996, King decided to film a six-part miniseries—this time filmed at the Stanley.  Since the restored lobby was now light and airy, King requested that it be repainted so as to give it a dark and sinister look; this was done.  Not surprisingly, ghost stories were born in its wake, along with murder mystery dinners, Halloween balls, daily ghost and history tours (from the creepy basement to the cobwebby attic); and stories abound of creaking floorboards, tinkling pianos, scurrying ghost children, etc—but all agree that there is nothing sinister or evil here, given that even the ghosts appear to love coming back just to enjoy themselves.

OUR VISIT

Connie and I remembered back to two special visits, first when a cavalcade of cars wound down from the mountains, preceded by police cars with flashing lights; soon the Emperor and Empress of Japan arrived, emerged, smiling their delight, and walked up the steps to the veranda only a few feet away from us.  They were eager to be off into the high country to see and photograph places and vistas they’d only read about.  The second was the night of Princess Diane’s funeral; Connie and I woke up in our room at 4 a.m., turned on the TV, and watched the pagentry until long past dawn.

Now we checked in, hauled in our smallest suitcases, and walked downtown to meander through the shops and eat home-made ice cream.  Later on, we drove into the park so Connie could get her national park passport book stamped, and Bob and Lucy could view an elk herd.

Inside the Stanley, we played dominoes in a room adjacent to the bar.  Later we became acquainted with a lovely waitress named Olga, from Hungary (most of her family had been killed in the Holocaust).  She’s now taking Hotel Management courses at Denver University.   Afterwards, we chatted by one of the great fireplaces on the first floor.  Then we struck up a conversation with Ute (from Germany) at the front desk.  She told us that over 150 weddings are held at the Stanley between Memorial Day and Labor Day.   Also that lots of corporations hold retreats here; and that the employees come here from all over the world.  In spite of it all, she said, it’s quieter here than one might think—even serene.  Though the Stanley remains a formal hotel, it’s more comfortable than most—a great place in which to work.

Then we snuggled down in our beds.  During the night, the wind battered the hundred-year-old hotel—and snow. For it was early in May.  We fell asleep wondering how we’d make it over the pass the next day.  The last thought, however: How grateful we all ought to be that this grand dame of the Rockies is still with us!

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we will sidetrack to the December Book of the Month.

SOURCES

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks, II (Portland, Oregon: Graphic Arts Books, 2008).

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).

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JOURNALING AND OUR BOOK CLUB

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

JOURNALING AND OUR BOOK CLUB

Nov. 2, 2011

There are, in each of our lives, certain days that prove pivotal in our journeys.  One such day had to do with a lecture of the top information literary specialist in America to the faculty of Columbia Union College.  Looking around at us, college professors from many disciplines, she asked us a simple question: “Let’s say you gave your students an examination earlier today.  Then, a week from today – completely unannounced -, you give them the same exam.  How much of what they knew today . . . will they remember a week from now?”

None of us even came close to the correct answer.  “Your top student,” she pointed out, your four-pointer, will remember a week from today, at most, 17%!  Most will remember far less – and it will be all down hill from there.”  I’ve never taught a class the same way since.  For if the most brilliant student in the college forgets at least 83% in one week, what pitiful retention rate does that imply for the rest of the class?  Hence the preposterous exercise in futility of end-of-the-semester exams three and a half months later!

As for thoughts, rarely do they come when you most want them to.  In fact, many insidiously come to us just as we’re drifting off to sleep.  Have you ever thought, What a beautiful thought!  Can’t believe I came up with it.  In the morning, ho hum, I’ll write it down . . . I’m far too comfy to get up now.

And in the morning, what do we remember? Not much.  Chances are, we won’t even remember what the thought was about.  If it does come to us, it will be in such muddled shape it won’t even be worth writing down, for thoughts only ring their golden bells once in life.  Another put it this way: “God only gives you a great thought once.”

One of England’s great writers, Matthew Arnold, in his poignant poem, “Despondency,” described this phenomenon in eight lines:

“The thoughts that rain their steady glow

Like stars on life’s cold sea,

Which others know or say they know –

They never shine for me.

Thoughts light, like gleams, my spirit’s sky

But they will not remain;

They light me once, they hurry by,

And never come again.”

America’s greatest poetess, Emily Dickinson, took the same number of lines to express her own frustration:

1452

“Your thoughts don’t have words every day

They come a single time

Like signal esoteric sips

Of the communion wine

Which while you taste so native seems

So easy so to be

You cannot comprehend its price

Nor its infrequency.”

You no doubt noticed certain words in Dickinson’s poem that are a bit archaic today.  Unless you keep by your side a full-sized Webster’s Collegiate dictionary (or equivalent on-line), you’d miss key portions of Dickinson’s meaning (especially when trying to understand what Dickinson meant by words such as “signal,” “esoteric,” “native,” “easy so to be,” etc).  It is no exaggeration to declare that unless each of us not only has, but uses, such a source, we will unquestionably cripple our ability to understand what we read.  Really serious readers also access an unabridged dictionary, and for archaic words the monumental Oxford Unabridged.

SO WHY JOURNAL?

Some years ago I had in one of my Freshman Composition classes a second-generation student (I’d taught her father in high school a generation before).  She asked me one day if I’d had my students journal in my classes when her father was in my English classes.  Her face fell when I answered in the negative.  She then added, “Oh it’s sad because Dad and I aren’t getting along very well—he’s just an authority figure rather than a father.  I just thought if I could read journal entries written by Dad when he was young like me, perhaps we could meet in our journal entries.”

Up until that time, I’d never really given much thought to journals as vehicles to freeze our thoughts into time periods.  Since then I’ve discovered that a number of renowned writers have capitalized on that reality to find out how they thought when they were much younger, or described people, places, experiences immediately after they took place.  I’ve ruefully discovered that while my writing has greater depth and breadth now than it used to have, I’ve lost the ability to think and articulate as a 50-year-old, a college student, a high school student, or a child.  This is a major reason why journal entries penned at each stage of our lives are so significant.

As for travel, travel writers will tell you that, in visiting places for the very first time, you have only moments in which to jot down those first impressions.  When you first arrive, everything jars, for everything is new.  Each sensory impression has an echo: a flashback to its counterpart back home.  But by the next day, sensory impressions are already blurring—you are no longer sure what is new and different and what is not.

Several days ago, on a Southwestern Airlines plane, I was privileged to sit next to a delightful young couple.  We got into a far-ranging discussion of books (e-books versus paper) and quotations.  They were most interested in my daily quotation tweets, for both seek out memorable quotes in their daily reading.  In truth, had I not many years ago begun writing down in the back of my journals the most memorable quotations from my reading, I’d not have near the vast repository of memorable quotations I draw from today.  We use quotations in so many ways in our lives (family, school, church, public speaking, writing).  I also paste in poetry at the back of my journals.

But the same is true with vivid metaphors and similes.  These too I write down in the back of my journals.  For such figurative language reveals to us how much more vivid and fresh our spoken and written communication can be if we avoid hackneyed words and cliches.

Then there are powerful beginnings and endings (in both short stories and longer works).  For unless a beginning sentence or paragraph sucks us into the story, article, or book, why write something no one will remain interested in beyond the first page?  This is a key reason why, when I find such a riveting passage, I write it down at the back of my journals.  The same is true of endings.  All too many writers just run out of gas at the end, are seemingly unable to close the sale.  But some writers spend a lot of time with their conclusions, so structure them that but one additional word would wreck that last page.  The endings are so deeply moving that you couldn’t forget them if you wanted to.  They ring like a giant bell.  These too I write down at the back of my journals.

So it is that while my journals also record the nuts and bolts of my life: who I write to or phone every day, who I meet with, where I travel to, etc. (and these can prove to be extremely significant when I need to retroactively find out where I was and what I did on certain days), even more valuable to me are the things I write down at the back of my journals, for they synthesize my creative involvements.  I also record goals and objectives in my journals.

I also write down significant things I hear in the digital media, lectures, church services, workshops—oh the list goes on and on!

* * * * *

I hope you can now see why I am urging each new participant in our Book of the Month Club to immediately purchase a full-sized journal from your local office supply store.  Mine are ledger size and contain around 300 pages; they generally last me three to five years each.  What you’ll discover, over time, is that these journals will not only end up capsulizing and chronicling your life, they will also become so much a part of who you are and what you do and say and write that you’d feel empty without them.

I look forward to hearing back from you as you make your journals part of you.

SAMPLINGS FROM MY JOURNALS

QUOTATIONS

“Parting is all we know of heaven

And all we need of hell.”

—Emily Dickinson

“It is nothing to die; it is horrible not to live.”

—Victor Hugo

“It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to open the

mouth and remove all doubt.”

—Abraham Lincoln

METAPHORS

“Now there was a chasm as wide as the world between them and only

the child to span it.”

—Ernest Pascal

“A little mouse of thought went scampering across her mind and popped into

its hole again.”

—George Meredith

SIMILES

“The softness of a kitten’s feet–like raspberries held in the hand.”

–Anne Douglas Sedgewick

“And his little feathered head drooped like the head of a wilting poppy.”

—Elizabeth Goudge

BOOK BEGINNINGS

“A sharp clip-clip of iron-shod hooves deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.”

–Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage

BOOK ENDINGS

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done;

It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

—Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll begin the Southwest National Park Lodges series.

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AUTUMN LEAVES



 

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

Oct. 5, 2011

Everywhere, as I pen these lines, there is gold.  To paraphrase Sound of Music, “The hills are alive with the gold of autumn.”  Saturday, we battled rush-hour type traffic up into Clear Creek Canyon.  Everyone, it seems, had concluded, It’s time to drive up into the mountains for our annual autumn fix.  Yesterday, we took highway 285 south, battling traffic again.  At Kenosha Pass, thousands of cars and even more thousands of camera-toting people of all ages, clogged the mountaintop.  And on across the vast reaches of the South Park plain, the aspens lit up the sky.

Conifer Mountain is ablaze as well—splotches of gold, orange, yellow, and umber interspersed with lodgepole pine green.  We keep looking at and photographing our equally beautiful long driveway.  For well we know, it will not stay this way: in only days, the wind will strip the leaves from the aspens, and then we’ll know for sure that Old Man Winter’s on his way.

When teaching at Washington Adventist University, many were the Octobers when two professors and I would take a bus load of students north into New England (they’d get class credit in English, history, or religion), visit cultural sites, and “ride the colors down.”  Those autumns are indelibly limned in the archival galleries of my mind.

Only once, in a short story, have I attempted to capture autumn’s essence.  I titled it “October Song,” and included it in my book titled What’s So Good About Tough Times? (New York: WaterBrook/Random House, 2001).

I began my romance with twelve lines of poetry:

Oh to be in New England in autumn

When the leaves turn from green to gold;

Oh to be in New England in autumn

When I too am growing old.

The years, they are a-passing

Passing like the scarlet, brown, and umber leaves

Wearily letting go, and cascading down

From the soon to be naked trees.

Rolling up the rugged shore are waves of blue and gray;

Blue today in the serenity of Indian Summer,

Gray tomorrow in the hurricanes of late autumn

With autumn leaves the in-between.

For I too am nearing my October;

Remorselessly the sands of my hourglass

Sift down and down and down

Just like the leaves, just like the leaves.

Later in the story, I return to the theme of autumn with these prose lines, articulated by the story’s fictional protagonist, John A. Baldwin:

I have always loved autumn in New England, and so I try to meet my tryst with her every year.  Two songs have deeply moved me since I was young.  They are Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves” and Kurt Weill’s “September Song.”  They move me still, even more than they did in those days gone by, perhaps because those words now mirror me, and my age.

For me, too, the days are “dwindling down to a precious few.”  I, too, no longer have time for the “waiting game.”  I, too, have reached my life’s September, and October is knocking at my door.  And well I know how great a distance separates May from December.

But I don’t feel old.  Like Tennyson’s immortal Ulysses, I am nowhere near ready to slow my wandering steps and wait until Death comes after me.  Death is going to pant a little before he catches me.  As long as I live and breathe, I shall create and attempt to make a difference.  I shall grow, learn, and ever hone my craft.  I shall stay young till that last breath.  Just as the sea refuses to surrender, but assaults its beaches millennium after millennium, just so I refuse to surrender or slow down.  Who knows, perhaps love may yet come to me, improbable as it may seem after so many fruitless years of searching for “the one woman.”  As it was for my long-departed mother, there can be only one mate for me

So while I feel the shortness of time left to me more in autumn than in any other time of the year, it does not cause me to surrender, but rather to “seek, find, and not to yield.”

True I bravely say all this, but deep down I know every October finds me weaker than the one before, and that one of them will be my last.  But I have determined, like Dylan Thomas’s persona, to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” [from “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”].

So, wherever you may be when you read these lines, I urge you to climb into your car, and not stop until you find autumn.

* * *

Next Wednesday, for all those readers who are afflicted like us with an incurable case of wanderlust, we shall continue with our tribute to Ken Burns, as we complete the great circle of national parks and national park lodges by loading up the car with Bob and Lucy Earp, and visit Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, Bryce, Zion, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, South Rim, Death Valley, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Great Basin.

We hope you’ll tag along with us!

 

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BREAKTHROUGHS

Once in a long while in this thing we call life, we experience a real breakthrough. Sort of like breaking the sound barrier—which for a very long time was deemed an impossibility. Nowadays, because of regulations that deal with the effects of sonic booms on people below, we rarely hear them. In January, during a cruise to the Southern Caribbean, in Barbados (one of four regular stops in the Americas for the legendary Concorde), I was privileged to explore one of those iconic super-airliners—and to experience a virtual flight re-enacted, complete with sonic boom.

Interestingly enough, the Concorde’s ability to fly at twice the speed of sound was touted as the reason it was such a technological breakthrough: it was expected to pave the way for ever faster passenger planes (more like rockets than traditional planes) and passenger travel into space. It was the world’s gold standard for several decades, during which only the super rich could afford to travel in those semi-rockets. Instead, it was proven too expensive to operate, and air travel reverted back to pre-Concorde flight expectations. Nevertheless, it was a major technological breakthrough, and engineers continue to build on it, and learn from it.

In my own life, I remember such a breakthrough during my college years. Because of a negative mindset, I floundered through my first two years. Reason being, I’d convinced myself I was incapable of earning anything higher than a B in college courses. As a predictable result, that assumption turned out to be a self-fulling prophecy.

Until one memorable day, in a history class taught by the well-known Dr. Walter C. Utt of Pacific Union College in California’s Napa Valley. For reasons that made no sense to me, my exam paper was returned to me marked A-. Surely, I thought, Dr. Utt must have made a mistake! Utt evidently gave me someone else’s grade (someone, unlike me, who was capable of earning A’s).

Unable to make sense out of it, I took the exam to Dr. Utt, and asked him if I’d actually earned an A-. Smilingly, he answered, “Yes, Joe, you earned that grade. Best work you’ve ever done for me.” Back in my room, I just couldn’t get this miracle out of my head, pondering it night and day. Then came the life-changing epiphany: If I’m really capable of earning A-s, if I study a little harder, why couldn’t I earn an A next time?

And so my life changed forever: Amazingly, during the nineteen years that followed, through a bachelors and masters in history from Pacific Union College, a masters in English from University of California – Sacramento, and the Ph.D. in English (History of Ideas emphasis), from Vanderbilt University, in only two or three isolated instances did I ever earn anything less than an A! The barrier had simply been mental; once I’d broken through it once, I was able to soar wherever my dreams would take me.

A second crucial breakthrough took place in stages, each essential in my own life trajectory, for if I failed to conquer that giant called procrastination, little could be expected of me. First came the Eight Magic Words, “If not now—when? If not me—whom?” articulated by the Rabbi Hillel (a contemporary of Christ). Before every opportunity, challenge, invitation, request, etc., is dealt with, first pose these two questions before I either pass or act on them. Second, Kalidasa’s “Salutation to the Dawn,” written over a millennium and a half ago by India’s greatest writer. In this poem, Kalidasa postulated that every day is a miniature lifetime, with a beginning, middle, and end; and only when we so treat each day can we stop frittering away our life energy in our yesterdays, bemoaning the mistakes we made in the past, and worrying about our futures. By concentrating all our energy into our todays, Kalidasa pointed out that we’d thereby cease to waste our times in two dimensions of time we can do nothing about. Third, Helen Mallicoat’s timeless “I Am” poem, in which God declares He is not “I was,” nor is He “I Will Be,” but rather He is “I Am”—only in the “I Am” present may we find Him. Fourth, Life’s Three Eternal Questions: “Who Am I? Where Did I Come From? Where Am I Going?” Only as we continually pose these to ourselves can we avoid veering out of our desired trajectory.

These four anti-procrastination tools did not come to me all at once, but rather over a third of a century. Without them, neither my advanced degrees nor our 74 books would have ever come to be at all.

A third equally significant breakthrough in my life occurred about five or six years ago. Significant because in life we may coast to a certain extent while we are young and have vast stores of vital energy in us; but, inevitably, we can only coast so far and so long before we begin paying the price. In my case, the problem had to do with my addiction to workaholicism. Always I’d assumed that exercise was merely an option rather than a necessity in life. It took me two near-death experiences to wean me away from that error in judgment. And a catalyst: a major health study that resulted in a conclusion I’d never heard of before: that there are no plateaus in life: each of us is either becoming stronger than we were or weaker than we were, every day. Indeed, that our bodies reinvent themselves every 100 days, at any age! It was that “any age” that merged (in my mind) this study with the true life experiences of specific contemporary Americans such as California’s Hulda Crooks and Mavis Lindgren who, late in life, decided to run: Mavis Lindgren in races and Hulda Crooks in running up mountains such as Mt. Whitney and Mt. Fuji, each running circles around those a quarter their age. Over time, they actually became stronger in their 70s and 80s and raced on beyond that.

I was then in what would have become a free-fall health-wise, exercising only sporadically. But I wanted to remain healthful and creative and alive, it was just that until that “100-day study,” I’d never found a tool that was strong enough to reverse my decline. Looking at myself sans rose-tinted glasses, I concluded that I was doomed unless I awoke out of my deadly inertia and vigorously—rain or shine, cold or hot—exercised for 30 – 60 minutes every day of my life! For if I failed to do so, missing days here and there, I’d be lost, for inevitably I’d slip right back into inertia. For close to five years now, I haven’t missed a day, and I feel better than I have in years, and have more energy.

Which brings me to a lateral related breakthrough five nights ago ( the night preceding the Super Moon on March 19—not to be that near or bright for another eighteen years). The moon was gloriously close and brighter than I could ever remember it. I retired at 10:30 p.m. and awoke at 12:30 a.m. by the moon’s radiance. Got up at 1:00 a.m. Concluding that a reason for waking so soon was my failure to get enough vigorous exercise in shoveling four inches of snow off our upper deck, I decided to do stairs (I usually do around 2,100, half up at a semi-run—that 2,100 turning out to be a wall I seemingly could not break through). Keep in mind that we live at close to 10,000 feet elevation so our hearts have to really work to keep us functioning at full torque. However, on this particular night, for some inexplicable reason, I had so much energy I felt I’d never get back to sleep unless I put more pressure on myself; so, for the first time ever, I exercised 5-pound barbells during about a third of the stairs, doing so on the upward segments. Even so, though I broke a sweat sooner, I just didn’t get tired. Not even when I hit the proverbial 2,100-step mental wall: I just smashed through, not stopping until 2,800 steps (a quarter more than ever before); even then, I could easily have topped 3,000!

Which taught me a lesson: even in my 70s, it was possible to keep growing stronger and stronger.

Thank God for breakthroughs!

Do let me know your thoughts, reactions, and responses to this blog.

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TREASURES FROM THE PAST #1

One of the responses to the survey has already had its effect: it urged me to keep mining the bullion of the past in my blogs.

I have been working around the clock on my eighth collection of animal stories (Animals of the Jungle). As I searched for stories, in a long-ago essay written by Hildegarde Hawthorne (granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne), published in a magazine for young people early in the twentieth century, I found a timeless treasure of thought perfect as the follow-up to last Wednesday’s blog: “Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow.”

It was inspired by Emerson’s famous poem:

DAYS

“Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bringing diadems and fagots in their hands,
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.”

THE DOORWAY OF THE DAYS
by Hildegarde Hawthorne

A day is a wonderful thing. It is like a great doorway flung wide for you to pass through into all manner of adventures. One after the other, these doorways open to you, each different, each opening on a fresh prospect. Fresh, yourself, after the rest and the stillness of night, you stand each morning on the threshold, and then you step through and are launched on what that day has for you.

Of course, the day, being as it were just this welcoming doorway, can not make you go out to meet what it holds. You can refuse its mighty invitations. It may be a day that opens on shadowy forest paths, on blue headlands, a day where nature is at her most beautiful best. Again it may hold a splendid hour or two of companionship with some one who could tell you much of this nature, who could give you new insight into her mysteries, who could explain what hitherto you had never understood. It might be a day made for running feet and for laughter and joy. It has opened the wide doorway to all this. But of course you can refuse it all. You can turn your back on the prospect before you, spend your hours indoors, fail to meet the friend who was waiting, sulk over some fancied slight or trouble, worry and exhaust yourself in various ways. The doorway of the day will swing close, at last, and the possibilities on which it opened will have gone, perhaps forever.

Supposing you had only one day to live in, like some of the ephemera, whom you may watch in summer, dizzy with their dancing, in a sunbeam. Just one day! Well, it would hold twenty-four hours. How splendid! How much you could do in that time. And how much to choose for the doing, the seeing, the hearing, the feeling, the thinking! A sunrise and a sunset, stars, a moon maybe, winds swaying tree-tops or ruffling water; and then comrades to play with, a fine book to read, music to hear; a ride, perhaps, in a motor-car or on a horse, a walk in a country lane or along a street filled with all manner of things worth looking at; there would be meals to eat, a lesson to study. You would have the joy of bodily exercise, the joy of loving, the delight of conversation with friends. Each hour would hold its own miracle.

At the end, before sleep came, you would find no words to describe the marvel of a day. Room in it for the exercise of all your faculties, for dreams and for reality, for play and for work. A great round day, and you alive in it.

You see, just because there is more than one day, we get too used to them to remember what they really are. We let them slip through our fingers, with their adventures unlived, their beauty unseen. Many a day has been treated as though it were just a bore, when it was simply bursting with exciting thrills. Many a day that held in it a wonderful thing, which you would have cherished all your life, has been allowed to pass away empty. For only what you take from the offerings of each day is yours.

Do you ever think over the manifold ways in which each day is spent by the people on this earth? How an Eskimo spends the day you have given over to school, to football practice, or a game of tennis or to skiing, to a matinee or a quiet time reading while the storm beats on the windows and shouts over the house? How that same day is being spent by a savage in Africa, by a Russian refugee, a coal-miner, a seaman? You can get some notion of all that a day opens on if you let your mind wander a bit in these directions.

It seems to me that the great difference between those who lead a full and interesting life and those who don’t is that the first do not let the fact that there are three hundred and sixty-five days in a year dull the wonderful possibilities of each individual day. They look before and after, of course, for the past and the future add richness to the present. But the day itself is the thing. Because tomorrow you are to go on an entrancing journey, or to the dentist, there is no reason for slighting today. It too has its worth and its gift. Live it. The combination of you and a day is too wonderful to be missed. People throw days away as if they were worthless pebbles, and then complain that life is a poor affair. One of Emerson’s noble sayings was, “Give me health and a day and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous”; and as you grow older you will cherish also in your memories his brief poem on “The Days.” It is a vivid picture in words of what I have been trying to set forth; and every earnest boy and girl can imagine the days going on about their tremendous business rather bewildered and rather amused. Here we are, they say, full of everything. And look how we’re treated and hear how we’re reviled! What’s the matter with these people, anyway?

And then the Days will show each other the unused things they had ready, which were never asked for, like handfuls of fine jewels shining in the light, but which no one stooped to pick up.

“Funny business!” sigh the Days, and if they had heads, there’d be reasons a-plenty for shaking them.

It is interesting to realize that the day that opens its great gate to you is for you only. No one else has just the same day. Even though you go every hour of the twenty-four close with a sister, a brother, a dear friend, and though what happens to you happens too to him or to her, as the case may be, yet the day will not be alike. Half of everything is the thing itself; the other half, its effect on you; and that effect can never be exactly duplicated. That is why it is that one person will get joy and interest out of a day that another will find merely tiresome.

The best will in the world can not keep dull days and dark days entirely away. You are going to miss quantities of things that you could have enjoyed, because you are tired or out of sorts or disgruntled. Other things will come to you that will be hard to bear and sad to live through. But for all that, the greater portion of your days are good days. The doorway they provide leads to much, and it is your own fault if you get only a little.

The fun of being alive and of having these days opening up, one after the other, is tremendous. Out you go to meet them, with your body, your mind, your senses, your questing spirit. You find things to laugh over, or cry over. You find things that set your mind to keen working or that strengthen your muscles or train the faculty of sight or of hearing, that make more proficient your hands, more skillful the whole bearing of your body. You meet something new to you, and have to readjust yourself and your ideas to take it in. To something else you say good-by for the last time. You will have your own interests, however, and the more, the merrier.

As your mind grows and develops, so the interests of your days should grow and extend, and each day coming ought to be more than the one gone, for you yourself are more. The trouble often is that one drops something for each new thing taken up. The play and the ecstasy of youth is lost with the deeper feeling and growing cares of maturity. But the girl or boy who goes on into maturity without losing too much of that young rapture becomes the best sort of man or woman. Don’t let your life go dry; let it keep its sap and freshness. Artists usually excel in this wisdom. The child lives on in them, making them richer and their days more radiant because it has not withered out of them. Keep what has come, and go on to what is due, and you will not be likely to find life a bore or a burden.

I remember how long a day appeared to me when I was a child—not too long, I enjoyed every moment of it, but so much longer than it does now. I had a better understanding of how great a day is, then. Now it seems short; sometimes I feel as though it merely winked at me and vanished. I can quite imagine that when I move on into eternity that eternity will soon seem to be short enough for all I want to do and be. Think of standing and waiting while the great door of eternity swings open and lets you through! But of course a day is after all a portion of eternity, and maybe it is because we are close to one end of eternity in childhood that days are eternal to us then. Why, any spring morning that was fair and welcoming I remember how I would go to lie under a certain apple-tree where the grass grew thick and the bending branches swept it, making a bower of bloom. And there I would dream away several days in a space that must really have been only a couple of hours. I would like to get back the glorious leisure of those days, to feel the promise of eternity in them; but though I haven’t lost the sense of the magnificence of a day, I can’t hold on to its vastness.

Except always in what it offers.

Now and again a day will come with a gift so splendid that you can not help but recognize it and acclaim it. You will say, as you have heard others say, “That was a great day in my life!” But don’t disdain the other days, that blow no trumpets and open no golden treasure-chests. They have their own wonderfulness, that calls to the wonderfulness in you, and through their mighty doorways you step to everything in life.

St. Nicholas, January 1923