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DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

Nov. 23, 2011

SELECTION TWO

THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL

by

ABBIE FARWELL BROWN

 

 


 

 

DICKENS AND BROWN

 

If the truth must be told, I almost chose Dickens’ Christmas Carol as our December selection, but had second thoughts because Connie and I concluded that most of you would have already read it.  If it should turn out that you have not, I have a suggestion: In such a case, since both The Christmas Carol and The Christmas Angel are quick reads, I suggest that you read Dickens’ great classic first, for all modern Christmas stories graft on to Christmas Carol.

I was privileged to partner with Focus on the Family and Tyndale House in twelve classic books: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1997) and Little Men (1999); Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1997), and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1999); Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1997), Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (2000); Grace Richmond’s The Twenty-fourth of June (1999); Gene Stratton Porter’s Freckles (1999); Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1999); Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel (1999); and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol 1997) and David Copperfield (1999).  For each of these I wrote a modest biography of the author (averaging 60 – 80 pages in length) as well as discussion questions placed at the back of the book for individual readers, parents, teachers, and homeschoolers.  And we featured the oldest or best set of illustrations we could find.

All these books have long since gone out of print, however, we still have sale copies available (new condition) for almost all of them should you be interested in purchasing them from us.  Since I’m hoping that you’ll either re-read or read for the first time The Christmas Carol, I’m featuring part of my introduction/biography: ‘Scrooge at the Crossroads.”

I cannot remember when I first heard it read . . . nor when I first read it . . . nor when I first experienced it on film . . . nor even when it first engulfed me as live drama. . . .  I only know that looking back through life, somehow — I know not how — Christmas Carol was always there.

In the annals of literature there is nothing like it.  Certainly there was nothing like it before Dickens wrote it in 1843 — since then, many have tried to imitate it.  But the great original still stands, alone and inviolate — the Rock.

Can Christmas possibly be Christmas without it?  Many there be who would answer in the negative: somehow, to conclude even one Christmas season without re-experiencing the story would be to leave that year incomplete.

In the century and a half since it was published, we have come to take it for granted: we just accept it as if it had always been with us: like Wise Men, creches, and holly.  What would the world, after all, be like without Scrooge, Marley, the Cratchits, the Three Ghosts, Bah! Humbug! and Tiny Tim?  Well, in the year of our Lord, 1842 — none of those yet existed.

So what was 1843 like for Charles Dickens?  Simply and succinctly put: not good.  It was about time for it to be “not good.”  Let’s step back in time — and I’ll explain.

As we can see in the bio, Dickens endured a tough childhood — a mighty tough childhood.  Then, at the age of 25, he was catapulted to the top of his world.  It is always dangerous to soar too high too young: it usually results in a strong case of King of the Mountain hubris — unless the 25-year-old is strong and wise beyond his years; unless he realizes, with Nebuchadnezzar, how quickly the God who giveth can become the God who taketh away; even more importantly, unless he realizes that, in life, nature ‑‑, and apparently, God ‑‑ abhors long plateaus.  In other words, today’s Success is already unrealizingly sowing the seeds of its own destruction.  This was true with Dickens.  He had assumed, as had that great Babylonian king before him, that he had become king and great all by himself ‑‑ by the sheer brilliance of his mind and force of his will.  Both of which he had an oversupply of.

Perhaps a baseball analogy would help.  In 1836, he stepped up to the plate, and hit Boz out of the park.  Next, he hit Pickwick out of the park.  Then Oliver Twist, then Nickelby, then The Old Curiosity Shop, then Barnaby Rudge, which just cleared the outer wall.  Then came his ill-fated trip to America, and when his bat made contact with American Notes, he only hit a bloop single, not even realizing that he now had a hairline crack in the bat.  That was followed by Martin Chuzzlewit ‑‑ and with it, he broke his bat.

For the first time in seven years, he was in trouble.  He had mistakenly assumed that, being King of the Hill, he could say anything he darn well pleased.  That he could travel to the late great colony of America and noblesse oblige himself all over the place.  Since Americans were too cheap to pay him his due royalties, he could just tell them where to go.  To put his condition in modern vernacular, he had an attitude problem.  Even his countrymen felt, this time, that he had gone too far.

The result: the golden faucet ‑‑ that had gushed its riches upon him for almost seven years ‑‑, now slowed its flow so much he wondered if perhaps his well was going dry.  Even worse, what if it was dry?  What if people would no longer buy his books?

Dickens was never much of a humble man: he knew to a penny the value of his gifts.  Or had known prior to 1842.  Now, he didn’t know any more.

Well, what could he write that would improve his fortunes, and help bring back his fickle audience?  Something he could write quickly, not just another two-year book serialization.  So the idea for Christmas Carol came to him (see bio).  For a month and a half he totally immersed himself in the world of Scrooge.  In the process, he gradually became aware that, somewhere along the way, he had become a Scrooge himself: had felt himself so secure in his gifts that he no longer needed other people, that he no longer needed to really care (not just abstractly, but one-on-one) about human need.

In the course of writing the story of Scrooge, Dickens was able to pull himself back from the brink, to realize his need of others.  He began to wonder if he any longer knew ‑‑ or if he ever had ‑‑ who he really was.  Could he even know without going backwards in time?

The answers to those questions were a long time in coming, but A Christmas Carol was the first step, the four other Christmas books represent additional steps, but the biggest steps were Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Yet something else happened during the writing of the little book: he learned a great deal about the difference between writing a lean cohesive book (written all at once) and writing the usually episodic, rambly, serialization book.

As a result of this no man’s land between the hubris of his youth and the social conscience of his maturity, he was able to make it the rest of the way through his life without ever again seriously daring hubris.  He was able to find out things about himself that stripped away some of his teflonish pride.  And sorrow would rock him on his heels again and again.

So it came to pass that in the last quarter of his life, in his 450 public readings (for fifteen long years, having an average of one public reading performance every twelve days), the story of Scrooge became as indispensable as singing the national anthem at a big league baseball game ‑‑ unthinkable to close without it.  And as his life drew to a close, a higher and higher percentage of each evening performance was devoted to Christmas Carol and its lesson of agape love.

It is no hyperbole to say that without this one little book, the life of Charles Dickens most likely would have been a very different story.  In a very real sense, then, we may validly say that the characters ‑‑ children, if you will ‑‑ conceived by this author ended up by taking him on a long journey . . . that would take the rest of his life.

And it is our privilege to be invited along.

Welcome to the timeless world of Christmas Carol.

ABBIE FARWELL BROWN AND

THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL

I have always loved Christmas stories — especially the heart-tugging kind.  And, let’s face it, sentiment and Christmas belong together.  Of all the seasons of the year, the heart is openest to love, empathy, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, and change . . . at Christmas.

Thousands of authors have written stories about Christmas, but sadly, most of them are shallow, sterile, and un-moving.  These stories may be technically brilliant, but if they fail to engage the heart, I view them as failures.

Only a few have written “great” Christmas stories, and even fewer have written “great” Christmas books (usually novelette length rather than full book length, as Christmas books are rarely very long).  And of those few special Christmas books which percolate to the top, very very few manage to stay there, but gradually, over time, sink down into that vast subterranean sea of forgotten books.  To stay alive, season after season, generation after generation, presupposes a magical ingredient no critic-scientist has ever been able to isolate.  Just think about the ones that come to mind: The Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, Its a Wonderful Life, The Other Wise Man . . . , and, with these four, we begin to sputter and qualify.  There are many others that come to mind, but none of them has been able to stay in the top ranks of Christmas Best Sellers.  In recent years, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (1972) and Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box (1993) have so far evidenced staying power, but only time will reveal whether they will stay there, for it is comparatively easy to stay alive for ten, twenty, even thirty years ‑‑, it is much much harder to remain vibrantly alive 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years or more.

But, none of this precludes comebacks.  Literature and public taste are, after all, cyclical, thus even during authors’ lifetimes, reputations roll along on roller-coasters, undulating up and down as public tastes and demands change.  No one remains hot forever.  Along this serpentine track of survivors rumble authors such as Dickens, Dostoevsky, Hugo, Cooper, Scott, Stevenson, the Brontes, Twain, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Alcott, Shakespeare, Carroll, Chaucer, Defoe, Dante, Dumas, Eliot, Kipling, and Thoreau — these never go out of vogue.

Once past the immortals, we move into a much more fluid field.  Depending on many factors, recoveries and resurrections continue to take place.  Usually because certain works brazenly dig into our memories and impudently refuse to leave.   Which brings us to Abbie Farwell Brown.

It was some years ago when I first “met” her.  My wife and I were wandering around New England at the height of fall colors.  Ah, autumn in New England!  There are few experiences in life to match it.  Among those few are New England used bookstores.  Well, it was in one of these that Connie discovered an old book — and short — with the intriguing title of The Christmas Angel.  She brought it over to me and asked if I was familiar with it or with the author.  I was not, but on the strength of the wonderful woodcut illustrations, we bought it.  Upon our return home, I unpacked it, then sat down to read it — and LOVED it.  Such velcro sticking power does it have that it has pummeled me until I am black and blue from its demanding to be brought back to the top, where it keeps telling me it belongs!  It was there once, and liked it, but, through no fault of its own, readers who loved it died off, so it began its gradual descent into that ultimate oblivion.

So here it is, if for no other reason than to rescue my battered body from its continuous pummeling.  I don’t often creep out far enough on limbs to risk getting sawed off, but I shall make an exception for The Christmas Angel.  I shall be really surprised if it does not claw its way back to the top — and stay there, this time.  It has all the enduring qualities that has kept The Christmas Carol up there for over a century and a half — in fact, one manuscript reader told me, about a week ago, that she even prefers it over The Christmas Carol.  It is one of those rarities: a book that should be loved equally by all generations — from small children to senior citizens.  I can see it being filmed; and I can see it becoming a Christmas tradition: unthinkable to get through a Christmas season without reading it out loud to the family once again.

Since the story is divided into 15 short chapters, it would lend itself to being spread out during the Advent or the Twelve days of Christmas.  Having said that, I’ll prophesy that pressure to read on by the listeners might make a proposed time table difficult to stick with.

And, unquestionably, the Reginald Birch illustrations add a very special dimension to the book.

When Christ wished to hammer home a point, He told a story, a parable, an allegory — in fact, biblical writers tell us He never spoke without them.  This is just such a story.  But, coupled with that is something else: it is one of the most memorable and poignant Angel stories I have ever read.  And it is amazing how many people today are rediscovering Angel stories!

It has to do with Miss Terry — bitter, cold, bigoted, and unforgiving.  As was true with Dickens’ Scrooge, in her life virtually all sentiment, caring, and love had been discarded, then trampled on, in her morose journey through the years.  And now, at Christmas, but one tie to her past remains, one key that might unlock her cell block of isolation: her childhood box of toys.

She determines to burn them, — every last one.

* * * * *

It is my personal conviction that reading both books this Christmas season will result in one of the richest Christmas seasons you have ever known.  And it will amaze me if you don’t end up loving The Christmas Angel at least as much as The Christmas Carol.

In my introduction/biography for The Christmas Angel I piece together Brown’s fascinating life story and list all her books and short stories.  I’m guessing many of you will wish to track down and purchase her other books as well as this one.

Be sure and journal each time you read from these books.

At the back of my edition are seven pages of questions to deepen your understanding.  Such as these:

Chapter One: “Alone on Christmas Eve” – What is the impact of that line?  Why is it harder to be alone on Christmas Eve than at other times?  Or is it?”

Chapter Four: “Why is it, do you think, that so few toys survive intact?  Are they deliberately mistreated, or does it just happen”

Chapter Six: “Why did Miss Terry rescue the Christmas angel from the muddy street, and why did she find it impossible to toss it into the fire as she had so many other toys?”

Chapter Nine: “Why is it, do you think, that toys have greater reality to children than they do to adults?  How is that borne out in this chapter?”

Chapter Fourteen: “How do Angelina’s Christmas angel and her guardian angel blur together?”

LAST SUGGESTIONS RE WRIGHT’S CALLING OF DAN MATTHEWS

More and more people keep expressing interest in The Book Club.  When you notify us that you wish to join, please email that information to us so we can add you to the roster.  If you feel uncomfortable posting your mailing address on the web, just drop it in the mail to me at P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.  Send me your name, interests, reading preferences, and other items that will help me chart the direction of The Book Club.

After securing a copy of each month’s book, be sure and journal each time you read from the book.

Following are some observations and suggestions re your reading our November selection: Harold Bell Wright’s The Calling of Dan Matthews:

1.  I first read it when I was seventeen.  Why do you think it had such a powerful impact on me?  (On others as well?)

2.  How is it different from other religion-based novels you’ve read?

3.  Wright wrote three Social Gospel novels.  Look up the term, then respond in terms of how the book incorporates the movement’s key elements.  In other words, Christ, in His life on this earth, was not at all into doctrine or creeds, but rather into selfless service for others.  So, did Wright pull it off?

4.  Did reading this book have an impact on you personally?  In what way?

5.  Did reading the book make you want to read more Wright books?

            SECURING DECEMBER’S BOOKS

You will have no trouble finding a copy of Dickens The Christmas Carol, for it is one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  But if you’d like to order my Focus/Tyndale edition, just write me at Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433, or send me an email at “mountainauthor@gmail.com.”  Should you wish me to inscribe any copies, just let me know—there will be no charge for that.  The Christmas Angel is likely to be more difficult to secure, but again, I can supply you with a copy.

PRICE: $16.99 each.  However, if you alert me to your being a member of our book club, you can reduce it to $14.00 each.  If you purchase both books, I’ll reduce the price to $25.00 total.  Shipping will come to $6.00 extra.

I’ll need your full name and mailing address.  Checks are fine.  So is PAYPAL. For further information, access our website at

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll journey to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

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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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THE CHANGING SEASONS

The snow is falling again as I write these words.  Another reason for living in the Colorado Rockies.  In fact, the two seasons are slugging it out, as the golden aspens (at peak only a week ago) are clearly reluctant to surrender the field to the forces of winter, but they have no choice in the matter given that each season is as inexorable as incoming and receding tides.

We’ve been waiting almost half a year for this moment: when once again it is safe to build a fire in our moss rock fireplace.  If the truth must be told, when we moved back to Colorado in 1996, the real estate agent had been given a list of 30 priorities (what we valued most in our new home).  At the top were: It should feature serenity, a view we’d never tire of, lots of snow, and a wood-burning fireplace.  Today we get to revel in all four.

OUR BLOG WORLD

Our daughter Michelle and agent, Greg Johnson, joined forces two years ago to drag, kicking and screaming all the way, this dinosaur of the ink and paper age, into the new digital age.  “You must blog!  Thus was born the weekly blog, Wednesdays with Dr. Joe,” which has continued unbroken even during that hellish period when an unscrupulous predator hacked into our world and shut us down.  We have no idea how many readers we lost during that traumatic period.

What I have discovered is that blogging is such a new construct that there are few entrenched norms—unlike tweets where a Procrustean Bed of 140 spaces preclude deviation length-wise.  As you have discovered, I joined the ranks of those who prefer the longer format.  It’s really much like the weekly column I wrote once, “Professor Creakygate,” for the students attending Southwestern Adventist University.  Once you establish a rhythm, it’s just a matter of not breaking it.

Given my penchant for longer blog series (the Northwest National Parks, the Southern Caribbean, the Zane Grey convention in Virginia, the Trembling World, and the upcoming series on the Southwest National Parks), I have discovered that long series where I dwell on a subject for months at a time can put my voice into a straitjacket which precludes me from speaking out on hot current issues.  Because of this, I hereby announce that this time, expect periodic breaks; but rest assured, always I will afterwards resume the series topic.

OUR TWEET WORLD

I held back as long as I possibly could—until my agent held my feet to the fire long enough to risk ignition—on adding the tweet dimension to our lives.  On October 1, I started daily tweets, concentrating on quotations chosen from a half century of collecting (hundreds of thousands).  Not just quotations, but quotations that help make sense of this thing called “life.”  Speaking just for myself, this hectic life we live virtually guarantees that we will break down unless we turn to a Higher Power than ourselves and also seek wisdom from others who have learned much from the batterings of the years.  These hard-earned nuggets of thought and insights end up providing us with just enough strength and courage to face each day.  Changes of pace too, for without changes of pace (such as humor) in our thought-processes, we become warped or petrified.

During my 34 years in the classroom, one aspect was a constant: a thought written with chalk on the blackboard each day.  My students looked forward to something new that greeted them each time they came in the door.  Also, I have since discovered that many of them copied those quotes into their notebooks and have lived with them ever since.

I’m an avid collector of quotation compendiums.  Some few I find worth the price; many, if not most, are not (merely quotations flung onto paper, without regard to their relative power or effectiveness).  I don’t know about you, but what I hunger for most are quotes that make me think, that make me re-evaluate my own habits and inter-relationships, that end up making me a different and better person than I was before.

I also realize that we are each fighting off electronic strangulation; so much so that we try something new with great reluctance.  It is my earnest desire that you will find these tweets worth the time it takes to check them out each day.

MY PERSONA

For years now, my agent has been trying to hammer into my thick head this message:

Our old world (paper and ink-driven) is changing by the nanosecond.  While books are likely to always be with us, they will never reign supreme as they have during the last six centuries.  Like it or not, electronic books will continue to expand their reach.  What this means is that the old templates will no longer work like they once did.  Your persona is no longer captureable just in traditional print.  But rather, you owe it to your “tribe” [people who are kind enough to listen to what you write and what you say] to speak out about life and values multidimensionally: through paper and ink books [75 so far], through public speaking, through media appearances on radio and TV and book-signings, through your blogs, through your tweets, and through all the plethora of new communication technologies.  Only by keeping up with all this as best you can, can your unique voice (your persona) have any chance of remaining alive during coming months and years.

And since I do wish to stay in contact with all of you, I am committed to continuing to create books (traditional and electronic), blogs, and tweets.  Do let me know if all I’ve articulated in this blog makes any kind of sense to you.

* * *

Next week, we will transition through the abstraction of travel toward the Southwest parks and lodges.

* * *

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A ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH — IN READING

It was a day to be remembered—a day to give one hope that America’s best years are not gone. The setting: Ron’s Barn, set by a lake in Evergreen Memorial Park. Outside roamed Ron Lewis’s herds of buffalo, elk, and deer. And the snow was beginning to fall.

For over an hour, third-graders and their parents, teachers, librarians and principals, had been arriving, the kids surreptitiously peering around the corner to make sure those precious books were there waiting for them.

Five mountain communities just west of Denver were represented: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jefferson [Conifer], each with its elementary school.

For us members of the Conifer Kiwanis Club, it was our ninth reading celebration in as many years. We exist as a club for one reason only; indeed, after the invocation and pledge of allegiance each week, together we recite our mantra:

Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers—dedicated to changing the world:

one child, one community, at a time. . . .
Kiwanis is for kids here, there,
everywhere.

Children of Deer Creek Elementary School

And here in this venerable barn (reconstructed from five historic barns Ron Lewis had found and transported from remote sections of Colorado to this lovely mountain valley), was our reason for being. Appropriately, Ron’s first order of business was to welcome the several hundred attendees to his barn, to tell them the story of Jessica, a buffalo Ron had raised from birth, personally feeding seven times every 24 hours—not surprisingly, he considers Jessica (now a venerable 22 years old), to be his daughter. He told us how Jessica, after breaking a leg, would normally have been butchered for her meat, but “how could I let that happen to a daughter?” Had that happened, Jessica could never have given birth to a bull that reigned as champion of the Denver Stock Show, selling for $85,000. Then we all sang, “Home on the Range,” about a place “where the deer and antelope play.” Following that, Ron took batches of third-graders out to see Jessica. Meanwhile, those still in the barn queued up at the book-signing table.

In preparation for this event, during the last two months, I had made two visits to each of the five elementary schools, telling the third-graders about the upcoming reading celebration and showing them copies of each of the first seven books in my “The Good Lord Made Them All” animal series: Owney the Post Office Dog and Other Great Dog Stories (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2004), Smoky the Ugliest Cat in the World and Other Great Cat Stories (2005), Wildfire the Red Stallion and Other Great Horse Stories (2006), Dick the Babysitting Bear and Other Great Wild Animal Stories (2007), Spot the Dog that Broke the Rules and Other Great Animal Hero Stories (2008), Amelia the Flying Squirrel and Other Stories of God’s Smallest Creatures (2009), and the newest one, Togo the Sled Dog and Other Great Animal Stories of the North (2011). I then sketched out for them the essence of each book’s lead story, left a poster depicting all the covers, and a permission slip for each parent to sign if it was OK with them if I gifted the child with the specific book the child chose.

Inscribing a book to one of the children.

Each child received first at our book-signing table a Certificate of Reading Achievement (with a gold seal), signed by me and by Barry Sweeney, former Kiwanis Lieutenant Governor. Then, as each child reached me, I was able to find out about his/her reading habits before I personally inscribed the chosen book.

At 2:00 p.m., we all gathered together for the other main event: After speaking to them about the program, I encouraged the adults in the room to seriously address the problem of our community’s boys (an issue I have dealt with in several earlier blogs). They were sobered as I pointed out that boys across the nation are bailing out of the educational process at such a rate that the ratio of female to male on college campuses across the nation is already 1.5 to one, and threatening to reach two-to-one.

I relayed a message from the local CEO of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (the most faithful corporate backer of our program). He declared that reading ought to be one of our highest priorities in Colorado. And that, when he looked back over his life, he was most proud of—not his own career—but having a daughter who so loves reading she recently read 35,000 pages researching her masters in English.

Afterwards, I called the group up to the front school by school. After awarding each $1,500 check, we had the principal, teachers, and librarians tell us how they used last year’s money. Apparently, this is the only known instance where all our mountain elementary school personnel get together to compare their reading programs.

Turkey kiss. Photo by Barbara Ford -- Reprinted Courtesy of Evergreen Newspapers.

One report was especially intriguing: The principal of Parmalee Elementary School, Ingrid Mielke, seeking ways to motivate her students to read more, rashly promised to kiss a turkey if they collectively read for at least 100,000 minutes during a two-week period. They were so motivated they read for 192,423 minutes!

High Timber Times reporter Barbara Ford chronicled what happened next: “At the end of the school day on Tuesday, students gathered outside and got their first glimpse of the Duncans’ bird gobbling as he strutted around the cage. Mielke approached the giant gobbler as Duncan’s husband, Graeme, held the bird closer than a forkful of white meat on Thanksgiving. Mielke closed her eyes and swooped in for a swift smooch on the turkey’s neck. Students cheered.” (Dec. 1, 2010 issue).

Afterwards, it was time to resume inscribing books. By now (being it’s the ninth year of these reading celebrations), I’ve discovered a real pattern: If a student admits to poor reading habits, rarely is s/he expressive. There is a glazed look in the eyes (typical of the media groupie’s bored expression having to do with all things educational). Not so, the child who loves reading: here, the eyes dance, the child clearly filled with wonder about the magical worlds contained in books. A number of these came by my table. To each of them, an author like me was almost a subject of awe.

In those few, I sensed the birth of a new beginning in America. If we as a nation can somehow reverse decades of plunging reading scores, it will be because we finally pull back our children from the brink of mental, physical, and spiritual pulverization by excessive exposure to electronic imagery, and in its place, restore that serene world our children once had four generations ago—a world where their dreams may germinate. . . . And reading will flourish again.

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PEOPLE WHO WORK IN NATIONAL PARK LODGES

We’ve
come to the end of this series of blogs celebrating Northwest Loop
lodges. But lodges are far more than wood, steel, stone, and glass:
it takes flesh and blood people to bring them to life. Since most
NW lodges close during winter months, it should come as no surprise
to discover that most workers are seasonal, many being students
during the winter months. I couldn’t help but notice a parallel to
life during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Americans
(especially the young) flooded out of the cities and into the
nation’s heartland, seeking enough work to stay alive.
“Brother, can you spare a dime,” the mantra for that
generation. The difference this time having to do with our
changing mores. Back then, most of those who left home were
males; that is not true today. When we asked those who waited
tables, cleaned rooms, or otherwise kept the park lodges running
smoothly, where they came from, we quickly discovered that they
came from all across the U.S., Canada, and from around the
world. When asked why, one response predominated: “Since I
couldn’t get a job, I decided to follow my dream and see places
I’ve always wanted to see.” Or, “Since I couldn’t afford
college tuition, I logged in at websites such as Coolworks.com to see what was
available out there.” Some were recent graduates unable to
land a full-time job. Collectively, these workers were a very
attractive mix: clearly the best, cleanest-cut, most adventurous of
their age-group. Since I’m such a romantic, I asked a number
of them what resulted from the juxtaposition of young people of
both sexes in these lodge facilities. They’d smile and admit
to “lots of romances—more romances than marriages.” Yet, a
surprisingly large number spoke of marriages. One young man,
at Paradise Inn, Mount Rainier National Park, paused after my
questioning before musing, “You know . . . I must be a throwback to
my parents. . . . They met at a facility like
this, and have worked in parks ever since. They
love what they do! So it’s affected me
too. Growing up in the great out-of-doors, I couldn’t even
imagine being cooped up in a city! . . . . So, yes, I’ll
probably marry one of my co-workers just like my folks did.” They
were a most mobile group. Freed by the worldwide web to soar
across the nation and the world at the flick of a mouse, state or
national borders meant nothing to them. Shoot! All they
needed was a backpack and enough money to put food in their mouths
and pay the small fees required at youth hostels. They were
unabashedly rootless and loved the life. Their preferred
network: word of mouth. In a rain forest near Lake Quinault,
Bob and I met three very attractive coeds who were building
railings on park trails for the Oregon counterpart to FDR’s
Civilian Conservation Corps. Clearly, they were having a
wonderful time! Indeed, they were bubbling over
with joie de vivre. At Stehekin, that “island”
in time of a Shangri-la on Lake Chelan, one of the young waitresses
could be found during off-hours reading Jane Austen on a rustic
wooden bench, meditatively dreaming the vision of water and
mountains away. At Yellowstone Lake Hotel, a young string quartet
from one of the most prestigious music schools on the East Coast
confessed to coming here every summer, so that they could interact
with like-minded people from all around the world, work with
students who, like them, were lovers of the wide world, adventurers
all, and revel in hikes into every corner of Yellowstone and the
Tetons. “What’s not to like about that?” * * * * * But we
were more surprised by the number of older people we found working
in the park. At Stehekin, the postmaster chuckled as she told
of her daily excitement: carrying her bag of outgoing mail to the
boat just before it returned to Chelan. “Postal regulations
mandate that I lock the door when I leave, but I really don’t need
to. People here are honest.” When asked if she was a
native, she laughed again, “Oh, goodness, no! My husband and
I, as retirees, were sick and tired of the sameness of our lives,
so when we heard of this job, we jumped at the chance to move
here. My husband works in maintenance. Here I’m
needed, and we’ve just fallen in love with the
people here. I just couldn’t imagine leaving this magical
place.” At Old Faithful Inn, that madhouse of seething humanity,
during the unnatural serenity of one of the Old Faithful
Geyser-induced ebb-tides, I asked a lovely young woman,
effervescent, radiating happiness, and eager to be of service to
people like us, what brought her there—but before she could even
answer, an older woman broke in: “But what about me—aren’t you even
interested in me?” Then it was almost
like a dam broke as she poured out her story: Left alone at
midlife, she chanced to come to Old Faithful Inn to work for the
summer–and got hooked. She said, “I’ve been coming back here
every summer for over twenty years. It’s my life! I
live for coming back here every summer. Those who work here,”
and she looked fondly at her beautiful co-worker, “are my
children, and they treat me as though I’m
their mother. Oh the stories I get to hear!” In Colorado, I
met a United Airlines pilot retiree, who when I told him where I’d
been, responded with, “Let me tell you about my folks. Many
years ago, my mother-in-law, then a college student from back East,
from a well-to-do family, suddenly decided she wanted to go out
west to work in Yellowstone for the summer. Her father,
aghast at his daughter even daring to do such a thing, reluctantly
permitted her to go, but first made her accept a derringer for
protection. So when I asked him what happened afterwards, he
paused, a far-away look in his eyes: “Well, she never had to use
her derringer—but she did marry her employer,
the manager of Old Faithful Inn.” * * * * * These are just a few of
the stories we heard during our all-too-brief visits to these
wonderful old lodges. As an author, I’ve discovered that most
everyone I meet has a fascinating story to tell, reminding me of
that moving observation by Hans Christian Andersen: Each
of our lives is a fairy tale, written by the hand of
God
.

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SLAUGHTERING CREATIVITY IN THE CHILD

It is both wondrously simple and unbelievably complex: this mind God gave us—that either works, or doesn’t; sings—or sputters.

Famed obstetrician Dr. Frederic Loomis, in his memorable books, The Bond Between Us and Consultation Room, noted that in his long medical career (early to mid twentieth century), delivering over 3,000 babies in California’s Bay Area, invariably the new mother’s first two questions were either, “What is it?” (In those pre-computer days, the baby’s sex was unknown until its birth) or “Is it . . . all right?” and invariably the second question was the one asked with the most trepidation.

So it is that if the answer is positive, and it’s “all right,” the stage is set for the most incredibly rapid rate of brain growth the child will ever experience in life: not sipping life but swallowing it in gulps gallon by gallon. It is during this period of life that the child’s non-stop fusillade of questions about everything drive parents crazy. This period doesn’t ebb until around the age of six, when it is said that we’ve learned half of what we will learn in life. I must qualify that assumption by adding: half of what we need to know in order to function as human beings.

But there is no valid reason why this learning curve should not continue throughout life—unless. . . . And it is this “unless” that is a national tragedy for our nation. The tragedy has to do with the disconnect between the parents who are so euphoric about their babies’ being “all right” and their impatiently squelching, if not outright suffocating, the learning process once it has begun. How? By responding to the little question-machines with, “Don’t bother Mommy! Can’t you see I’m busy? Go bug Daddy!” Or “You and your interminable questions—you’re driving me crazy!” “Give us some peace, and shut up, for Pete’s sake!” Or, the most deadly cop-out of all, Oh, go watch TV, and leave me alone! No, I don’t care what you watch, just get out of my hair!”

And so that God-given creativity is blighted, and begins to shrivel up and die.

It’s that simple.

That dying of the once aspiring mind is accelerated by another tragedy: the wholesale annihilation of print in the home: no books, magazines, or newspapers to be found anywhere—only an impressive stack of electronic gadgetry that attach their tentacles to the child like so many octopus suction cups that drain away what creativity is left.

How?

By by-passing the receiver’s brain and blasting in, like so many moment-by-moment howitzer shells of pre-fab information created and packaged by someone else. Just a few of those results in little damage to the receiver’s creative process; the problem in today’s electronically obsessed society is that it continues day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade. And the more of this pre-fab imagery that stacks up in the mental archives of the receiver the less likelihood that anything created by the receiver’s brain will be left. Over time that person becomes what sociologists label “other directed” rather than “inner-directed” and ceases to function as a creative force at all.

I built a foundation for this new series of blogs on education and creativity with Blog #16 (March 10) – “Little Boy Blue”; Blog #17 (March 17) – “Non-reader’s Doomsday”; Blog #18 (March 24) – “Miracle in Silver Spring”; and Blog #19 (March 31) – “The Child is Father of the Man.” In coming weeks, we shall continue to explore this vital subject.

* * * * *

Every young man and woman is now a sower of seed on the field of life. Every thought of your intellect, every emotion of your heart, every word of your tongue, every principle you adopt, every act you perform, is a seed, whose good or evil fruit will prove the bliss or bane of your afterlife.

—Stephen S. Wise