LEARNING CURVES

When I was growing up, we perceived life differently from what is true today.  Education was something you did but once in life: your graph line went up, and it came down—and that was all there was to it.   The basic assumption: one grew smarter through one’s 20s, then began the long decline.  If you missed the early surge, that was just your tough luck.  Now we know that assumption was false.  Indeed, almost everything we once learned about the learning process itself is now being rewritten.

In my life, I’ve had a number of steep learning curves.  The first (and the longest) lasted 39 years—from birth through bachelor’s, two masters, and doctoral degrees.  At the conclusion of classroom instruction, when I’d read 40,000 pages of immersion into the Southern American Novel; Modern American Literature; Cross-currents in Russian, French, and American Literature; and Freshman Composition, in getting ready for my doctoral qualifying exams, the pressure was so great I broke out in hives and had to flee to the Smoky Mountains for some R & R. At that juncture, my advisor announced, “Joe, you’ll never be this intelligent again.”  In other words: “It’s all down-hill from here.”

In some respects, he was right.  In other respects, he was not.  Where rote memorization and cramming minutia into my head was concerned, he was right; but where almost everything else was concerned, he was wrong.

Which brings me to my second intense learning curve: my nearly 40 years of researching the life and works of America’s greatest frontier writer, Zane Grey; my initial three years’ research resulted in my becoming the world’s foremost authority on the subject; the other 37 years have had to do with assimilation and digestion of some 15,000,000 words.  At the end of three years, I was too close to hero worship to be objective: it took me most of the next 37 years for me to conceptualize the forest as well as the trees.  Had I published my initial 400-page biography then, I’d be terribly ashamed of it today.  Sometimes knowing too much about a subject can be a liability rather than a strength.

My third intense learning curve had to do with Adult Education, internalizing the most complex—by far—type of education there is: Learning how to understand, conceptualize, evaluate, and validate knowledge and skills gained outside the traditional classroom.  In other words: taking a room-full of adults (ranging from their 20s to their 80s) and assisting them to make enough sense out of all they have learned in life (by means of an autobiography); that includes every type of job, involvement, activity, contribution, etc., they can remember in life that might somehow equate with class credit we could build a solid case for and shorten their distance to a baccalaureate degree.  Nothing in my entire educational career had ever prepared me for such a daunting—almost terrifying—challenge and responsibility.

The fourth intense learning-curve had to do with my 34 years in junior high, senior high, college, and adult education, both as a teacher and as a departmental chairman.  Also, as a mentor.

The fifth curve has to do with development, public relations, general fund-raising, sales, and promotion (all of which were and are life-long).

The sixth curve has to do with my publishing career (71 books and counting), which has accelerated during the last twenty years of my life.

The seventh curve has to do with somehow making some sort of sense out of the whole amorphous mess.  The whole wisdom thing.  During the last two decades, I have belatedly come to prize wisdom by realizing how dumb I really am.  More to the point: How since God’s wisdom is the only wisdom worth quantifying, I have finally admitted my own gross ignorance and, on my knees each day, humbly request God to grant me wisdom from His deep wells so that what I write and what I say can meet with His divine approval.  If my (our) books have any lasting validity, it will be because He has granted my daily request.

It will be upon the backs of these seven learning curves that I shall base this new series of blogs that deal with life-long learning.

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Published in: on June 30, 2010 at 7:48 am  Comments (1)  
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MEASURING OUR LIVES BY BUTCHART GARDENS

Yes, ‘tis true: we do just that. We first experienced British Columbia’s Butchart Gardens 42 years ago (Greg fondly remembers it; Michelle does not because it was dark in the womb—but she was there). We’ve returned to what most likely is the world’s most beautiful garden three more times, in every season except winter. Most recently, in mid May.

We cannot perceive of any garden in the world being more beautiful than it was this time. Tuips, azaleas, rhododendrons, pansies, primroses, and many other May-time flowers—as well as flowering trees and shrubs—made every turn in the path a vision of paradise.

Though each season has its unique loveliness, it’s mighty difficult to imagine anything more magical than the post-winter explosion of spring.

This time, at the very inception of cruise-to-Alaska season, hordes of tourists were being disgorged from buses, bringing delight to Vancouver Island business owners as well as those cruise ship passengers.

For the first time in four decades, I took a mental inventory of what we’d seen and experienced over the years. In retrospect, I now realized that Butchart was anything but a finished product: it had continued to change, evolve, expand. There were far more pools, brooks, streams, waterfalls, bridges; types of trees, shrubs, and flowers, than ever before. Earlier, it had been merely memorable and beautiful—now, it took your breath away. Of course, with people from all over the world making it a destination stop, with more and more cruise ships docking in Victoria because of it, Butchart owners have more than enough money to hire a veritable army of gardeners to manicure it on an hour-by-hour basis.

Something else I hadn’t noticed before—was kids. Bus loads of them. Most with check-lists in their hands, searching for items to check off, delighted to cross bridges or leap from flagstone to flagstone in pools, etc. Whoever declared that kids no longer appreciate beauty in their lives these days should have been there to listen to those awe-struck children and tweens! Butchart managers are wise to give them special rates, for no child I saw there will ever be the same; for the rest of their lives, they will make a point of returning whenever it’s possible to do so.

At the front of Butchart’s wall calendars is a condensed version of the Garden’s history—it’s now more than a century old. Robert Pim Butchart was the pioneer manufacturer of Portland Cement in Canada. In 1904, with his wife Jennie and two daughters, he settled on Vancouver Island at Tod Inlet, 13 miles north of Victoria. From 1905 – 1910, huge amounts of limestone were quarried from the area. Jennie Butchart sighed at how unsightly and downright ugly the vast pit was becoming.

Because she loved to have beauty around her, she decided to do something about it. She discovered that the mild weather conditions on the island made for perfect flower-growing. First, she planted rose bushes, then, with the help of laborers from the cement works, she developed a Japanese garden.

Word got out, and more and more townspeople from Victoria began to visit the gardens. The Butcharts named their home “Benvenuto” (Italian for “welcome”), and the grounds were always open.

It has remained open for over a hundred years now—with more and more people from around the world adding it to their personal Bucket List of places to see before they die. And more and more like me and Connie, feel impelled to return again and again.

Steinbeck must have envisioned a place like this when he read in Genesis 2:8

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward of Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. . . .KJV

When Steinbeck wrote his unforgettable novel, East of Eden, I can’t help wondering: When he wrote it, had he seen Butchart Gardens?

SLED DOGS OF ALASKA

Since our seventh collection of animal stories has to do with animals of the North, our recent cruise to Alaska was a real serendipity. Reason being: we could thereby dig deeper into stories we were engrossed in. Thus when we discovered that one of the shore excursions offered by Royal Caribbean in Juneau would give us the opportunity to study sled dogs firsthand, we jumped at the chance.

Togo by Robert J. Blake

Togo by Robert J. Blake

I’ve attempted to capture that experience in the introduction to our upcoming book, Togo the Sled Dog and Other Great Animal Stories of the North; here’s a sneak preview of part of it.

Togo, image courtesy of Robert J. Blake.

Another contributing factor to the epiphany was a visit Connie and I made (during that same cruise) to a summer training camp for huskies in the hills above Juneau. I don’t know what I expected to see and experience, but it most certainly didn’t mesh with the reality.

As our minibus approached its destination, it seemed like all the dogs in the world were barking at once! Well, 150 huskies barking full-torque at once—suffice it to say, it’s an unforgettable experience. Until that moment, the dog-factor of sled-dog racing was just an abstraction in my mind. Suddenly, this collective howlerama blew years of misperceptions of what sled dogs were out of my mind, leaving me with a tabla raza on which I might construct a new template.

For it didn’t take long before I realized what all the howling was about. Just outside the circle of howling dogs (each one tied to a blue wooden hutch) was the beginnings of a sled-dog team. And each of the unchosen 150 dogs was belting out a canine plea: Hey there! Don’t you dare leave me out! Don’t you even think of not taking me along! Every last one of them harbored an all-consuming dream: To pull a sled at full speed somewhere. Had any of the 150 ever raced in the Iditarod, undoubtedly they were now dreaming of doing it again.

We were permitted to look at, and pet, those huskies (most with Sepphala Siberian ancestry in them) as we walked down the line. All the while, other huskies were being untethered from their hutches and brought over to the growing team. Believe me, each of those dogs was more than a handful! For the excitement over being chosen was so great they could hardly keep all four feet on the ground for the very rapture of what might lie ahead.

Who knows what goes through the mind of a wannabe sled dog? For starters, we must realize that since their life expectancy is only about one-sixth of ours (that they’re old by twelve), it means they have to cram into their moment-by-moment living six times as much intensity as we do.

At any rate, it took several dog handlers to keep them from tackling each other. Continually, they were messing up the lines attaching them to the tugline. And they’d leap high in the air in exuberant ecstasy at being among the elect. Just imagine trying to keep two dozen rough-housing little boys from tearing up a house—multiply that energy by at least six, and you have some idea of what it would be like to be a musher. Keep in mind that all this time the continual howls of outrage at being left behind from all the other dogs added up to an inimitable sound track. One that will remain in the archives of our minds forever.

At the end of this tugline was a cart large enough to carry up to a dozen people (total weight: a ton and a half). A wheeled cart because, though there was still snow on the slopes above, it had already melted down below. Someday I hope to be able to repeat the experience, but on snow. But mushers, in order to keep their sled dogs in year-round condition, yoke them to wheeled carts during the off-season months. And we tourists represent a serendipity: plenty of weight to pull [even more than normal, after getting off a cruise ship].

Finally—after what must have seemed an eternity to the fourteen dogs, it was time to move out. As we did, so excited were the long tied-up dogs that the musher had to keep the brake on to keep them from running away with us.

The rest you’ll get when you buy the book—that is, if my editor is kind and leaves all the words in.

RHAPSODY OF THE SEAS & STORMS I HAVE LOVED

Yes, it’s possible to fall in love with a ship. They say there are only three perfect shapes in our world: a violin, a ship’s hull, and a beautiful woman—and each of these harmonizes with the other two.

Well, I just fell in love with Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas; it is that rarity: a near perfect ship (both inside and out). For a ship is either a work of art—or it is not. Perfect ships don’t just happen: they must be dreamed up by visionaries; visionaries who know that perfection rarely results from happenstance. It’s like a perfect dinner: every piece of it mut appeal to all one’s senses without a false note anywhere. As is true with a beautiful woman, it is impossible to define what makes her so; it is either there or it is not. I seek the same perfection in our books; indeed I agonize over every piece: the choice of stories (emotive power, length, mood, velcroishly impossible to forget once read, etc.), the position each is slotted into, the illustrations, the cover, the typeface, the paper—each is a totality that is either a beautiful work of art or it is not. Just so a ship like Rhapsody.

Connie and I have cruised on a number of beautiful ships owned by Carnival, Olympia, Celebrity, Silversea, Norwegian, and now Royal Caribbean. Several of them I have loved enough to incorporate into stories: Carnival’s Jubilee, in “White Wings (Christmas in My Heart 10); Olympia’s Stella Solaris in “Stella Solaris” (Tears of Joy for Mothers); and the Norwegian Sun in my upcoming Christmas story, “Journey” (Christmas in My Heart 19). But of them all, only Silversea’s Silver Cloud is as beautiful as Rhapsody of the Seas.

But I really didn’t fall deeply in love with Rhapsody until May 19. I had no sooner finished my “Thousand Miles to Nome” lecture for the entire ship when the waves began to grow as we faced the full 10,000-mile-across power of the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Sound. By dinner-time, we spent half the time looking out the window at the gathering storm.

Each minute that passed, the storm grew worse—of course, loving the elemental power of storms so much, I’d personally classify such storms as ‘better.” In spite of sophisticated stabilizers, the ship began to rock. Occasionally a broadside-wave would hit us so hard you could almost hear the Rhapsody cry out in pain. Connie went to bed early so that she’d have something firm to hang on to. I, on the other hand, left the room and ricocheted from wall to wall as I attempted to walk down the long hallways. Few people were about, for they’d even had to stop the evening show part way through, fearing the performers would break legs or worse. But the venturesome ones who were out—well, we bonded, for it would have been great fodder for America’s Funniest Home Videos. We reeled – staggered – sashayed like so many thoroughly soused drunks. The wildest sensation was doing stairs, for when taking steps up, the steps would rise up to greet you; when taking steps down, the steps would drop away from you. I was so enchanted with this stair phenomenon that I did the aft set of eleven flights of stairs a number of times. What was really funny was seeing the look of disbelief on the face of a first floor staff member who couldn’t believe this lunatic was back for another run at it.

Afterward, since I couldn’t even stand up without crashing into something in our stateroom, I tumbled into bed and blissfully fell asleep to the night-long rocking of the deep while poor Connie couldn’t sleep at all. Come to think of it, Christ must have loved storms as much as I, for His disciples couldn’t believe it when He slept through a violent storm in mid Sea of Galilee.

I was reminded of several other great storms in my life, especially the one on the rim of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. We were visiting my brother, acclaimed concert pianist, Romayne Wheeler, and staying in his Eagle’s Nest studio on the canyon rim. A terrific storm hit, and the wind-driven rain fell up at us from the mile-deep canyon below, so it came at us from all directions. The battered studio began to leak like the proverbial sieve, both from the roof and from below through the shuttered windows. The two grand pianos getting drenched, we formed a brigade to help save them from ruination, sloshing around barefoot all the while. Terrifying because continuing lightning pyrotechnics could easily have electrocuted us all.

The only comparable storm I can remember on the sea to the one on May 19 (waves 40 feet high and 70 MPH winds) was one I experienced when I was 13 on a banana boat en route from Trujillo, Honduras to Tampa, Florida. This 300-foot-long fruit tanker ran straight into a full-strength hurricane—weather forecasting was still in its infancy back then, so we had no warning. In the absence of stabilizers, the ship rolled from side to side and frontally plunged deep down and then leaped sky high, to such an extent that almost everyone was throwing-up from nausea. But where was I? You guessed it: up on the top deck holding on to the railing for dear life as great waves all but buried me. Oh it was wonderful! My folks were too sick to care if I washed overboard or not. Undoubtedly the long line of New England sea captains in my paternal lineage has much to do with my reveling in the fury of great storms.

After the May 19 storm had run its course, the master of the ship, Captain Stein Roger Bjorheim [what intrigues me no little is that almost all cruise captains seem to come from Norway] came on the intercom and after-the-fact reassured us, declaring that the safest place to have been in a storm such as yesterday’s was in the Rhapsody of the Seas for she’d earlier on ridden out a Category 5 hurricane with hardly a scratch. That’s when I fell deeply in love with Rhapsody of the Seas. I yearn to tryst with her again.

ALASKA—A STATE OF MIND

We’ve just returned from our third cruise to America’s last frontier.  Each time we go there, the realization that we’ve but touched the fringes of it sinks deeper.

For it is so vast that travel writers exhaust superlatives in vain attempts to describe it.  After all, it encompasses 580,000 square miles (as large as England, Italy, Spain, and France combined).  It has more shoreline than all the rest of our states combined.  It is blessed with 150,000,000 acres of national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and other designated preserves; 38 mountain ranges, 3,000 rivers, and 3,000,000 lakes. Of its 15 national parks, only 5 can be accessed by road.  Much of it is barely charted, let alone touched by the human foot.  Indeed, of the 670,000 people who live there (about the number who live in Fort Worth, Texas), almost half of them live in only one city, Anchorage.

And it changes dramatically with the seasons.  That reality became evident during this our first spring visit to Alaska. Especially was it evident in towns such as Juneau and Skagway, that we’d experienced previously only during summer or fall; during those seasons, they seemed to be rather typical semi-frontier coastal towns, but now, in the spring, against the backdrop of towering snow-capped mountains, it felt like we’d suddenly been transported into the Swiss Alps!  It was a magical experience.

But why so few people?  Part of the answer to that question came to me in my research for “A Thousand Miles to Nome” (the fascinating epic story of the Great Serum Run of 1925, when dog-teams alone represented the difference between life and death in that northwesternmost Alaskan town, in the midst of a deadly diphtheria epidemic).  It was in the dead of winter, and ice had cut off all access to the town by sea until May—only by dog-sled teams could the life-saving serum make it through in time.  Of the ten lectures I gave to the SAGE group on board Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, this was the only lecture open to the entire ship.  In that lecture, I noted that, during winter months, added to the bitter cold and frequent blizzards, it was dark 20 out of every 24 hours—only the hardiest and bravest could stand it.  Offsetting this, of course, in the summer 20 hours of light each day made it difficult to sleep.

Not surprisingly, given our fascination with Alaska, our seventh story anthology of The Good Lord Made Them All series will feature Animals of the North.  It will most likely be released by Pacific Press in January of 2011.