A Strangling Christmas Hug

BLOG #52, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
A STRANGLING CHRISTMAS HUG
December 24, 2014

Every Christmas, I read stories aloud to many different groups. When I put a collection together, rarely do I think much about which ones will be the read-aloud winners for the season. But once a new Christmas in My Heart® collection comes out, then I begin trying stories out on various audiences.

At a recent Christmas vespers, after I was through, completely out of the blue, a little girl of about eight rushed at me, gave me a strangling hug, then ran off—all without a word. Obviously, one of the stories I read so touched her heart that she just had to tell me about it – in her case, in a fierce hug rather than in words.

Every year now, for more than twenty years, Janet Parshall has interviewed me about the new Christmas book, on her syndicated Moody Radio show, “Janet Parshall’s America.” On the December 17, 2014 broadcast, she asked me this question: “You’ve pointed out that for every story that makes it into a collection, you routinely pass over 100 – 300 stories that do not. What makes the difference?”

I told her that though I have no formula for defining the difference between winners and losers, one thing I do know: the ones that make it in slam into me [much like the little girl in the second paragraph] and demand to be included. And they burrow into my subconscious and imbed themselves like velcro—impossible to get rid of them.

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And oftentimes, it is the simplest stories that win out over the more complex one. For instance, the one I read on the broadcast, “The Christmas Doll,” by Jeanne Bottrop, an old story written during the Great Depression of the 1930s, why did I include it, given that it is such a simple little story written by an author few people have ever heard of? I told her, I did it because children do not internalize abstractions; they internalize story. Children today are so buried in gifts from so many directions, from so many people, that they find it extremely difficult to empathize with those less fortunate than they. But if they hear a story like this one: of an eight-year-old girl, mother having died when the little girl was three, a father who rarely came to see her, so poor she had only one patched coat, forced to work as hard as adults, who considered a single orange to be a Christmas gift of such value that she’d make it last for weeks, or months. A girl loved by no one who yearned for a doll she could love with every atom of her starved little heart. Might not such a story make a real difference?

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I’ve also read another story, Bruce R. Coston’s “The Gift” (from Christmas in My Heart® 23) a number of times this season. It is a simple little story of a little girl who longed for a kitten, parents who weren’t at all interested in getting her one, a tender-hearted veterinarian [Dr. Coston], and a kitten brought to the vet so that he could put it to sleep. “It was flea ridden and suffered from an upper respiratory infection that left her eyes crusted and red and her nose running. Her ears were filled with mites and her intestines with worms, but she was playful and endearing. She didn’t need a painless death! She needed someone who would afford her a painless life–someone who really cared. Amy came to mind.”

That, in essence, is the simple story—yet, regardless of age, it has deeply moved audience after audience I’ve read it to this Christmas season.

* * * * *

Yes, just simple little stories. Yet compare them to the inanities filling the air-waves today. Which type of story is more likely to help instill positive character traits in listeners, cause them to be kinder, more empathetic?

These are the kinds of stories that are worth their weight in gold. Such stories are the real reason the series has defied the odds by still being alive 23 years after it was first launched.

Stories likely to elicit strangling hugs.

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THE SECRETS OF THE CREEPING DESERT AND OTHER MYSTERIES FOR BOYS

BLOG #32, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE SECRETS OF THE CREEPING DESERT
AND OTHER MYSTERIES FOR BOYS
August 6, 2014

N E W S R E L E A S E

Just out is this, our 87th book. It was born three and a half years ago and contracted for three years ago. Due to unexpected developments, the manuscript was given a three-year-nap. Result: we have a surfeit of books carrying my name out this year; such a thing is not likely to ever happen again. Here’s how it happened.

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The date was Friday, December 3, 2010. Each first Friday of December, for many years now, I spend with my extended family at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. That particular Friday, for the fifteenth Christmas in a row, for morning worship, I shared with them a story included in the latest Christmas in My Heart® collection. The rest of the day, I spent signing books in the Focus on the Family bookstore. As is true with most epiphanies, I never saw this one coming!

As I inscribed the last couple of books, my long-time cherished friend, Editorial Director Larry Weeden, walked in to debrief on my day. As God would have it, then bookstore manager Bill Flandermeyer joined us for the same reason.

After we’d reviewed the events of the day, one of us posed this question (completely out of the blue–no antecedent for it): “When people come into this bookstore, is there anything that many of them are searching for that we don’t have–and they sadly leave without?”

It was a rhetorical question, not one we expected a definite answer to. Instead, without even stopping to think about it, Flandermeyer shot back: “Yes! Books for boys!” He went on to note that buyers young and old (grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, friends, children and teens), found all too few books for boys on the shelves. Then I was put on the hot spot: “What do you have for boys? Can you step in and fill the need?” I had to admit that though almost all of our books would appeal to boys, nothing I had was geared just for boys.

We had also discussed the subject of books that would appeal just to girls. We could all think of available options for them. But the problem was even bigger than that: today, we have a national crisis on our hands that has profound implications for America’s tomorrows. Boys are bailing out of education at an ever earlier age, veering instead into escapist virtual reality–be it video games, texting, alcohol, tobacco, pornography (their options are legion) rather than eagerly preparing themselves for productive adult careers. Since their parents don’t read much themselves, and there are all too few books, magazines, and newspapers in homes today, there are few incentives for their children to read either.

* * *

After I returned home, I couldn’t get the discussion out of my head. Was God directing me to become more pro-active rather than re-active? What could I do personally to help turn the tide? I’ve learned over the years that when God sets you up for action, you don’t have to wait long for His follow-through. In only weeks Dan Balow (the new publisher for Mission Books/eChristian) was in our home, with Greg Johnson (our long-time agent); the agenda had to do with possible book projects I felt strongly about. Fresh in my mind was the discussion at Focus on the Family. I brought it up. The result was a contract for six books, two of which came out right away: Showdown (sports stories for boys) and Bluegrass Girl (horse stories for girls). But not long after, Balow left the company, and we wondered if the other four books would ever see actual publication. Serendipitously, recently Todd Hoyt, the president of the company, reinserted the four titles in the pipeline: Only God Can Make a Dad and A Mother’s Face is Her Child’s First Heaven came out some months ago; and now, finally, here comes our second book just for boys.

In that 2010 discussion, specific emphasis had been placed on my consideration of mystery stories for boys. After all, almost every boy is fascinated by books and stories that incorporate mysteries in the narrative.

So, finally, here they are, the result of an exhaustive search for the most powerful value-based mystery stories I could find. I specifically sought out stories that were compatible with Judeo-Christian values, that didn’t veer into darkness–as all too many youth-oriented mystery stories do today. I searched for stories that were not merely good-reads but would also result in the reader’s positive inner-growth. In the process, I discovered that mystery stories for boys tend to be longer than those written just for girls. Possibly because boys revel in taking things apart to find out how they work. They want to know both how and why. In detail.

By the way, the third-grade boys at Jefferson County Elementary School in Conifer, Colorado helped to choose this cover illustration. More about how that happened in next week’s blog.

So here are the stories:

■ “Jimmy the Sleuth,” by Frank Farrington
■ “Black on Blue,” by Ralph Henry Barbour
■ “The Prisoner,” by Jeannette C. Nolan
■ “Mystery of the Missing,” by Ruth Herrick Myers
■ “Black Canyon Mystery,” by John Scott Douglas
■ “Jack’s Electric Signal,” by F. Lovell Combs
■ “Pluck and ‘Thousand Acres’,” by A. May Holaday
■ “The Egg Mystery,” by Earl Reed Silvers
■ “The Gassoway Goats,” by Ruth and Robert Osborne
■ “Scoop,” by E. Mark Phillips
■ “Four Men In Boats,” by Russell Gordon Carter
■ “The Secrets of the Creeping Desert,” by Richard N. Donelson

For this collection, I drew from the finest mystery stories for boys published during the twentieth century. I was already familiar with many of the authors, for their works were prolifically published by the leading magazines of the time–authors such as Ralph Henry Barbour, Ruth Herrick Myers, John Scott Douglas, A. May Holaday, Earl Reed Silvers, and Russell Gordon Carter.

Next week, I’ll tell you about The Talleyman Ghost and Other Mystery Stories for Girls.

You may secure copies from us; let us know if you wish any of the books to be individually inscribed. They ought to appeal to boys of all ages; they certainly appealed to me. Great stories are enjoyed by the old as well as the young. Get a head start on your Christmas stocking list by gifting a copy of this book to each son, grandson, nephew, godson, or friend.

ORDERING INFORMATION

Binding: Trade Paper
Pages: 174
Price: $14.98
Shipping: $4.50

Personally signed or inscribed by Joe Wheeler, if requested, at no extra cost.

Mail your request to Dr. Joe Wheeler, P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.
Or Phone to 303-838-2333.
Or send an email to: mountainauthor@gmail.com.

 

Trains – The New Way to Travel (Part 4)

BLOG #25, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Four)
June 18, 2014

Now we come to the end of our study on Amtrak trains and I’ve saved the most unexpected aspect until last: the impact of trains on young people. Not only that, but how I related to them.

Let me begin with the lovely young coed from Mesa State, the one who was so taken with the far-ranging conversation around our breakfast table. Permit me to begin with her appearance. Since her eyes still retained that magical childlike sense of wonder about the world around her, I‘m all but certain she’d been home-schooled. We saw no tatoos, no jewelry hanging from lips, cheeks, or nose. Clearly, she was highly intelligent and most curious about our worlds. Later on, I chatted with her for a while in the Observation Car. Some time later, as I walked past her coach seat, she moved over and asked if I’d be willing to talk with her for a while. She was full of questions about life, what it was all about, how she was to avoid the moral and ethical land-mines laying in wait for her at every turn. I told her about my 2014 Christmas in My Heart story, “The Tides of Life,” the love story of an artist just a little older (at the beginning of the story) than she. But her questions ranged so much wider than art that I introduced her to the 2013 Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in which I distill the most significant life-related wisdom God has entrusted to me during my lifetime. Also how I was able to incorporate that wisdom into what I called “The Nightingale Assignment,” a six-week period during which I challenged each student to come up with goals they could live with, and strive toward. Sometime during the discussion, she brought up the subject of birthdays, shyly admitting, “My birthday was ten days ago.” That was all I needed. Telling her I’d be right back, I moved forward to my seat, rummaged around in my briefcase for a book, took it back to her, and then showed that it was Christmas in My Heart 22, which contained that goal-setting story; then backdated it to her birth-date, and inscribed it to her. She then told me that a certain soldier had been moving in on her and she didn’t know how she could hold him off. She was so overcome by my taking so much time to talk to her, listen to her, and offer counsel, that she broke down in tears, convulsively hugging me. One of the last things she said to me was, “Oh, how much I wish I could have been one of your students!” I told her I’d always be there for her, no further away than a letter, email, or phone call. She got off the train at Grand Junction. But I’m hoping our time together and the stories in the book will make a real difference in her life.

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Our reason for making the trip was to attend a 55th alumni weekend at my undergraduate alma mater, Pacific Union College in the verdant Napa Valley. While there, as one of their honorees, I was asked to speak about the impact of my own principal mentor, Dr. Walter Utt, who I’d worked for three years. I told those assembled of the incredible impact that one man had on my life, how he’d remained in touch with me–until his untimely death [he was a hemophiliac] in his early fifties from an AIDS-contaminated blood transfusion out of San Francisco. I noted that after that never-to-be-forgotten remembering service (after I returned home), in gratitude to Dr. Utt’s impact on my life, I made a vow to God to make mentoring the #1 priority of the rest of my life.

Well, two days later, we boarded the eastbound Amtrak in Sacramento. We were soon climbing the newly snow-capped Sierras [a snow storm had just made a significant deposit of moisture in the higher Sierra Nevada Mountains]. In order to revel in the beauty more, I found my way forward to the Observation Car, and took a seat just inside the door. Turns out I’d joined a large group of college students and young singles. They were curious about me and I about them. For some unknown reason, I was impressed to ask a coed this question, “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” In seconds, her face was radiant–and the entire group was galvanized by the question and her answers. Afterwards, I asked another student the same question, and another, and another. By this time, older people in the car had figured out that they were missing out on something really interesting–so they moved into our group. The students were soon asking me questions. Learning I was a full-time author, and had been for many years a college professor of English, they pumped me for all I was worth. During the course of the next couple of hours I’d referenced the mantras for making a success of life in “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Incredibly, that half of the Observation Car became my class, and they proclaimed me to be their teacher. I passed out all the business cards I had left. Turned out to be one of the most fascinating and far-reaching discussions on life I’ve ever had.. Finally, I told them I’d better see how my wife was and left them; I didn’t see them for some hours afterwards, and they then reproachfully asked me why I’d deserted them.

It was late afternoon, when at one of our Nevada stops, many of us disembarked in order to get some fresh air. Several of those students were turning the air blue with cigarette smoke–so thick were the fumes that I couldn’t stand getting too close to them. But even so, the coed I’d spoken to first in the Observation Car turned to me, and in an earnest voice said, “Dr. Wheeler, do you know why I’m on this train?” I’m on because I wanted to get some answers about what life is all about. ”

I assumed I’d later be able to find her and follow up on her open invitation for me to talk with her personally. But unfortunately, she got off at the next stop. I’ve been troubled ever since . . . and prayed that, if it be His will, that God would have her reconnect with me.

So what does all this mean? I submit that there was something about Amtrak travel that caused all those students to buy tickets on The California Zephyr for reasons perhaps unknown even to themselves. But clearly they were seeking answers. Even more, they were seeking people who really cared about them, their goals, their dreams.

I suspect that they aren’t finding those answers in the hedonistic society we’re part of today. For universities have all but abandoned God, country, and values worth living by. People who attempt to live by a spiritual code are ridiculed and discounted. Thus these young people who clung to me like a life raft had clearly found in me something they weren’t finding anywhere else.

I will never be the same person I was ten days before. Nor, I am guessing, will those young people who spontaneously annointed me as their “professor.” And who got off the train with at least a few of their life-related questions dealt with or answered.

SPECIAL NOTE: All illustrations in this series taken from Amtrak Timetable and Vacations.

JUST ONE DAY AT A TIME

BLOG #15, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
JUST ONE DAY AT A TIME
April 9, 2014

Next to me in an office supply store line was a young woman in her mid to late 30s. She was working so hard to get just right a lamination of a long sheet of quotations that everyone in the waiting line got interested in her. Turns out that it wasn’t even for her, but for a dear friend. When I mentioned to her that her friend was lucky to have such a caring friend, she remarked in a very soft voice to me that creating this gift for her friend took her mind off her own troubles.

Conversationally, almost as an aside, I said, “Hopefully, your troubles aren’t too bad.”

When she puddled up, I realized I was in too deep to back out without further dialogue, and, well, one question led to another and before I knew it we’d moved away from the counter so she could speak confidentially. It helped that she’d purchased some of my books in recent years and trusted me.

It was far far worse than I had imagined: her husband had recently died from cancer. . . . Her teenage son had got in with the wrong crowd, overdosed on drugs, and died. . . . Without her husband’s income, she’d lost their home. . . . And the final straw: she’d lost her job too. She was homeless and destitute and didn’t know where in the world to turn.

She summed it all up with these poignant words: “God is my last resort, and I struggle to make sense of it all one day at a time.”

“One day at a time.”

* * * * *

Which reminds me of another encounter I had in a hospital break room a few years ago. I incorporated it into my story, “The Clock of Life.” in Christmas in My Heart 18 almost five years ago.

I’d been operated on for an obstruction in my bile duct that had resulted in my skin turning yellow with jaundice. My hospitalist had told me that if I made it to dawn without the most excruciating pain I’d ever experienced, that would mean I’d escaped pancreatitis. So I walked the hospital corridors hour after hour, stopping once in a while in the break room. Once, there was a woman sitting there who was the spouse of another patient in the ward. Turned out that her husband had a rare virulent form of leukemia. When I asked how severe it was, she answered almost matter of factly, “He can’t even turn over without my help.”

I followed up by asking, “And how long has he had this condition?”

There was a very long pause before, in a soft but strained voice, she answered, “Twenty-five years!”“

I was so stunned, I was almost unable to speak. Finally, I said, “Twenty-five years?

She nodded. “Yes. And in all that time I’ve never left him–not even for a day.”

I could only stammer, “My dear woman, how do you do it?”

Never will I forget her response: “God gives me strength for one day at a time.”

* * * * *

I was on the phone for over an hour one night recently. On the other end of the line was a friend I’d worked with in a university some years before. His voice was so soft I hardly recognized it. He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was so weak he couldn’t even get out of his chair without his wife’s help. He was undergoing 28-day cycles of radiation, each of which did all but kill him. The prognosis looked anything but good.

In situations like this one is almost incapable of speech. What do you say to a dear one who knows for a certainty that, unless a miracle takes place, he is living his last hours in life?

I told him I’d been praying for him. He told me that many others were praying for him too. . . and added, “It’s not too hard: we all know we’re going to die, so it’s not an “if,” only a “when.” And clearly he was getting his house in order: family and close friends visited him or phoned him often.

And he now lived “one day at a time.”

Before I signed of, he thanked me again for taking the time to call, saying, “You’re part of what means most to me: true friends who stay by me to the end.”

* * * * *

One day at a time. . . . God gives us strength for one day at a time.

Once Upon A Time 141 Years Ago

BLOG #11, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ONCE UPON A TIME 141 YEARS AGO
March 12, 2014

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What’s so significant about 1873, 141 years ago? Let’s find out.

Lincoln had been assassinated at the end of the horrific Civil War during which virtually every family, North or South, had been bathed in blood. The terrible Reconstruction Period was bringing a new species of hell to the South. To add even more misery, the terrible bank panic of 1873 was blighting the hopes and dreams of millions of people, for there was then no FDIC to fall back on.

But in the midst of all this, something totally unforeseen took place: Roswell Smith (1829-1892), cofounder of Scribners and founder of the Century Publishing Company, woke up one never-to-be-forgotten morning with a dream; but, unlike most people, this publisher believed in constructing lasting foundations under his dreams. Since he had more than enough money, all he lacked was a young energetic visionary editor who’d help him to change the western world. He found her, a widowed Mary Mapes Dodge, whose best-selling book, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, eight years before, had elevated her to the pinnacle of national popularity. Once she’d signed on, the stage was set.Scan_Pic0080

On my lapboard this stunning late winter day in the Colorado Rockies, is a very old book containing two 141-year-old magazines and four 140-year-old magazines. The crystallization into reality of Smith’s and Dodge’s dream: the very first volume of a life-changing magazine, St. Nicholas.

I’ve always been attracted to visionary dreams that change the world. I can only imagine what it would have been like in that New York editorial office when Smith handed Mrs. Dodge that very first magazine. In my introduction to “A St. Nicholas Magazine Christmas” (Christmas in My Heart® 17, 2008), I took our readers back in time to what it would have been like for a child or a teen to have been handed a copy of that magazine.

The fastest speed known to man was the train; transportation in general was still dominated by the horse. The telegraph office and the newspaper in each town were their windows to the world. The center of home life was the stove, kitchen, or fireplace–here is where family reading took place in the evenings. Paper was so rare that children, both at home and at school, tended to write with chalk on slate rather than using a pencil on paper. Childhood, as we know it today, didn’t exist back then, for children were expected to work as hard as adults. Education was all too brief; maybe, if you were lucky, three or four grades in a one-room schoolhouse. Girls especially faced an unenviable future for few careers other than marriage and motherhood were open to them. They were expected to marry by the ages of 14 to 17 (boys 15 to 18); children would then arrive on an average of every two years. No small thanks to the failure of doctors and midwives to wash their hands between patients, untold millions of women died of puerperal fever or childbirth “complications” – hence men tended to go through three wives in a lifetime. Life expectancy was short.

So just imagine yourself as an 1873 child or teen, as this magazine created just for you was delivered to your door. You’d be not only hungry for knowledge, you’d be voracious: all that knowledge out there, but inaccessible to you. Now here come, in your mailbox, windows to the world: history, biography, religion, literature, art, music, mythology, biology, architecture, anthropology, philosophy, technology, folklore, popular culture, and on and on. Authors and poets such as Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Hope, Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Longfellow, Bret Harte, Whittier, Frances Hodgson Burnett, William Cullen Bryant; and artists such as Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Frederic Remington, Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur Keller, etc.

Faithfully, for two-thirds of a century, three generations of young people received 1,200 pages of fascinating reading material every year. Without preaching or moralizing, the magazines helped inculcate principles of right living in its readers: character traits such as integrity, kindness, self-sacrifice, empathy, industry, courage, fortitude, self-respect, patriotism, respect for their elders, sportsmanship, etc.. – traits that bridged to the Golden Rule and service for others. Interwoven into the very fabric of the magazine was God’s leading in each of our lives. Thus, in its 66 years, St. Nicholas had a huge impact on the American people and British Commonwealth.

And yet, miraculously, defying all the odds, here is this refugee from another time, this 1873-74 artifact, on my lapboard! Thoughts and reactions almost overwhelm me. What will be the thoughts of people in 2155, 141 years from now, when they look back in time? Will there be any paper books left outside of mega library vaults? Will the average person be able to experience the thrill of touching and reading actual paper pages from times past? Or will the closest thing be digital? Digital recreations that lack any real connections to the real artifact itself. In that probable age of Orwellian Big Brother will they be forced to enter the Ray Bradbury world of Fahrenheit 451 and seek out those who memorized seminal books from the past (reason being totalitarian rulers have now erased all printed records that such books ever existed)? Even more terrifying, will there yet exist civilizations based on the Judeo-Christian belief system generations of children once grew up internalizing?

In a way, thousands of homeschooling parents are already circling their wagons around their children, earnestly seeking to preserve values worth living by for their children. Searching out real books, with the known potential to change lives for the better if their values are internalized. In a world that increasingly devalues real books, a revolution has already begun, a revolution every bit as significant as the one begun back in 1873-74 with this priceless book resting on my lapboard today.

Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions This Year

BLOG #1, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DON’T MAKE NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS THIS YEAR
January 1, 2014

I don’t mean that we should skip that annual ritual (for the obvious reason that we rarely keep them anyway). No more than we can stick to a diet long-term. Just think backward through time: how long has it been since you actually followed through on a list of New Year’s resolutions?

Recently, in a Success magazine, it was postulated that perhaps we ought to focus on a different approach. Zero in on one perceived deficiency in our lives at a time. For instance, we’re all aware that Americans are killing themselves at an unprecedented rate thanks to our sedentary lifestyle. Studies have confirmed that the more we sit, the sooner we die. The longer you stare at a screen without getting up out of your chair or off the couch, the shorter your lifespan. We know this, but most of us fail to act on it.

So, how about, this year, scrapping the resolution list, and concentrating on a small thing? Just one small thing. One thing that you could so concentrate on, and stay with long enough to make it habitual. If you make it habitual, you will have conquered the problem. So you determine not to sit down anywhere for longer than thirty minutes at a stretch (ideally, it ought to be fifteen minutes at a stretch, but it is wise not to settle on anything you’re unlikely to follow through on).

Let’s say the phone rings. Rather than reach for it, you stand up, retrieve it, and walk around until the conversation is over. That would represent one huge way to deal with the issue.

How about determining to take control of electronic intrusions that are gobbling up your creativity, and not coincidentally weakening your job performance? Electronic email and text-messaging beeps have become the new tyrants in our lives. What if you relegated all but the essential ones to a back-up holding pattern, to be dealt with when the day’s main demands and opportunities had been met?

Such single determinations may seem small, but in reality they are anything but! Reason being; There is no small anything in life. Tackling deficiencies in our lives, just one at a time, has the potential to revolutionize our life’s journey, and dramatically increase our creation potential. If you are interested in a fuller expression on this subject, I suggest you pick up a copy of my new book, Christmas in My Heart #22 (Pacific Press, 2013), and study my novelette-length story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” In it, in a fictional format, I deal with the fullest exploration of motivational stories, mantras, poems, quotes, etc., that I have ever discovered. It is extremely unlikely that I will ever take the time to do this again, given that the gestation for the story stretches out over virtually my entire lifetime (one year which was concentrated on the evolution of the story itself: 20,000 words in length). Oh yes, all you romantics, the story is also a Christmas love story.

* * * * *

So welcome to a new year, all you cherished members of my extended family. I’m honored that so many of you take the time to check out the latest blog each Wednesday of your lives. I do not take this weekly decision on your part lightly, and will continue to do my level best to be worthy of it.

A blessed 2014 to each of you!

Why Are We Americans Becoming So Dumb?

BLOG #50, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHY ARE WE AMERICANS BECOMING SO DUMB?
December 11, 2013

It was while listening to the “Sunday Morning” broadcast that I was jolted into shock by a broadcast segment. In it, the program regular admitted how traumatized he was to discover that his increased use of electronic gadgetry such as Smartphones and aps was destroying his brain. The catalyst was his rueful discovery that he couldn’t even remember his wife’s phone number without retrieving it from an electronic index. Even more horrifying: to realize he could no longer remember how to spell common words such as “spatula,” no matter how much time he took to probe his mental memory banks. The same was true with mathematics: the electronic crutch ends up crippling the ability to do even simple math. Witness the number of individuals at restaurant and store checkout stands who are incapable of making correct change unless the machinery does it for them!

Every time I look at new lists of intelligence rankings (by nation), I wince as the U.S. continues to slip ever further down. Long gone are the days when we led the world.

In November and December of every year, I spend a large percentage of my time at book-signing tables; often with fellow Kiwanians at my side (because of our literacy program for area elementary schools), where for eleven years now, we’ve targeted third-graders. Reason being: studies reveal that unless a child falls in love with reading by the third grade, it’s not likely to ever happen at all. We are often permitted to set up our tables in large supermarkets because of this program. So we have plenty of time to watch people, young and old, as they come into, and leave, these chain stores. More and more often we are noticing a disturbing new phenomenon: children who are connected to electronic gadgetry tend to pay no attention to the books on our tables—or anything else, for that matter. But even when electronic gadgetry is not a variable, we’ve noticed that it has almost become a norm: when an approaching child’s eyes light up at the sight of books, almost invariably it turns out that the child is a homeschooler.

Even as I was watching this most recent “Sunday Morning” broadcast, and simultaneously signing complete sets of Christmas in My Heart books, I belatedly realized that the books were taking twice as long as normal to inscribe, and that my memory was fogging over and my accuracy continuing to deteriorate. Finally, I had to leave the room where the TV set was on so that I could complete my signings in the time I allocated for them.

All this causes me to question many of the so-called benefits of technology: if electronic gadgetry continues to erode our abilities to read, comprehend, articulate, write, understand, and effectively utilize abstract thought, then might we as a nation be paying way too high a price for so-called progress? Might it also turn out to be that it is not progress at all? But rather, the reverse?

In the thirty years of research poured into my 1993 book, Remote Controlled, I discovered that the more time an individual (of any age) spent watching TV, the dumber that person proved to be. And the more muddled the brains of the recipients. By extension, might it not also be true that overexposure to electronic imagery other than television will end up dumbing down the receiver’s brains even further? Reason being that those who receive pre-fab (created by someone other than the receiver) imagery rather than creating connotatively imagery through reading, being read to, radio or live drama, end up incapable of communicating effectively either in oral or in written forms. Only the reader, it turns out, is capable of writing coherent sentences and paragraphs. Non-readers, having little that is original to them in their brains to draw from, find it almost impossible to write anything creative or coherent at all!

KPOF RADIO, AM91, THE POINT OF FAITH

BLOG #35, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
KPOF RADIO, AM91, THE POINT OF FAITH
STUDIO IN A CASTLE TURRET, ROUND TABLE BROADCAST, MARDEL’S,
OWLS, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, COFFEE, AND DAWN OVER DENVER
August 28 2013

How is that for a mouthful of a title?

It was still dark when my alarm clock shattered my dreams that morning of August 14, two weeks ago. I was out the door of the Grey House high on Conifer Mountain by 5:20. By 6:30, I could see the castle with its red-lighted beacon silhouetted against a cloudy dawn. As I approached the Westminister destination, I stopped, got out of my SUV, and unlimbered my legs so I’d be ready to sit down for the two-hour broadcast.

Afterwards, as I walked up the time-weathered steps, dawn’s gilding paintbrush gave the castle an otherworldly glow. Inside, all was already in progress for “The Breakfast Table Show: table-in-the-round, headphones and mikes, cups of steaming coffee, Roy Hanschke and Gordon Scott,–glaringly absent: Denise Washington Blomberg—, and an empty chair for me. How often, over the years had I thus joined this precious circle!

Fortunately, Denise would be back; but I gained a renewed sense of the fragility of life when Roy later shared with me the story of the dark days and nights when cancer came way too close to ending his part of the morning broadcast.

I thought back to the day in March when the station celebrated 85 years of broadcasting of KPOF Denver. 85 years under the same ministry ownership sharing the same gospel message.

What a milestone!

My thoughts drifted back even further, as I looked out the turret windows, to the days when the castle was a stagecoach stop. Yet here it still was, an anachronism when compared to the steel and glass skyscrapers just waking up to our southeast.

My reveries were abruptly terminated by a motion from Roy: In seconds, the commercial would end, and we’d be on the air. Ah the magic of radio! Still magical even in this age of nano-technology-driven instant obsolescence.

Once again, I was introduced to the listening audience–only, for the very first time, I was not here to talk about my latest Christmas in My Heart® book, but rather about my just-out Abraham Lincoln Civil War Stories (Howard/Simon & Schuster). It was also announced that, periodically during the two-hour broadcast, we’d be giving away copies of the book to listeners who called in when invited to do so.

And, it was noted to listeners that I’d be sharing several stories with them each hour.

Denise’s empty chair reminded me each time we missed her effervescent presence–which was every time we looked in the direction of that chair–how irreplaceable each of us is. For each of us is a one-of-a-kind: in eternity itself, there has never been, nor ever will be, another Denise, another Roy, another Gordy, another me, another you.

Even without her, the old electricity re-ignited, having flared again and again during years past. What one didn’t think of, another did: thus there were no awkward pauses, but rather a continuous flow of Abraham Lincoln, the gentle giant who still rules over our hearts–both in America and around the world.

Every so many minutes, just before a commercial break, it would be announced that next, I’d be reading a story from the book–and so the conversational flow would stop: for “How Lincoln Paid for His First Book,” “Only a Mother,” “Tenderness in a Ruined City,” and “The Heart of Lincoln,” four of the shortest stories in the collection, yet each simple little story deeply moving in a unique way. Each revealing another dimension of America’s only Servant President: accessible to all, be it a broken-hearted little boy, a shy little girl pleading for her brother’s life, a dying young man in a makeshift hospital, or a young Confederate wife and baby in the still burning city of Richmond who apprehensively opened her front door, only to see a tall gaunt figure standing there, who, to her stunned exclamation, “The President!” simply responded, “No, ma’am; no, ma’am; just Abraham Lincoln, George’s old friend.” [“George,” being the now near immortal general, George Pickett, who led the greatest charge in our history, Pickett’s Charge, in a losing cause at Gettysburg].

We could all hear the voices of listeners as they called in, overjoyed that I’d be personally inscribing their books. We’d also hear the voices of those whose calls were relayed in from the switchboard during commercial breaks. More often than not, calls from those who were deeply troubled about illness, privation, inner torment, each asking for intercessory prayers.

It was at such times that I became more fully aware that this was not merely a commercial radio station, but rather a group of dedicated prayer warriors, each, from station manager, Jack Pelon, on down, committed to selfless service to all God’s sheep who looked to those inhabiting the Castle on the Hill as undershepherds to the Great Shepherd. All across the great city of Denver, they were listening to every word we spoke.

I thought too, both then and later, about the station’s 85-years of daily struggling to remain alive in an increasingly secular age, especially in recent years when Christianity and those who believe in God are openly mocked by a society that has apparently lost its spiritual moorings.

Every so many minutes, it would be announced that I’d be signing the Lincoln book at two locations that week: downtown Denver’s Barnes & Noble on Friday and Mardel’s Christian Bookstore on Wadsworth on Saturday.

It would be at Mardel’s where I’d fully realize the power of KPOF’s spiritual ministry to the people of Colorado: All day they came, all but two there because they’d heard Wednesday’s broadcast, they loved Lincoln and yearned to learn more about him in the new book and in my earlier biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage–, but mainly, they were there because they trusted those dear folk in the Castle they listened to so faithfully, day in and day out; spring, summer, autumn, and winter, year after year. And, because they’d heard me before, heard my voice breaking in deeply moving stories, they opened up their hearts to me, considering me also to be another undershepherd. What greater honor could there be? Furthermore, they were at Mardel’s because it was one of that dying-breed: an overtly Christian bookstore, courageously day by day fighting the forces of secularism determined to eradicate such spiritual holdouts as this one.

After we’d sold out all the Lincoln books early, I debriefed with Dana Oswalt, long-time Mardel’s bookstore manager, about all I’d experienced. Since she’d tuned in to the broadcast herself, she knew they’d be coming. She now confessed how deeply moved she’d been by what she’d seen and heard at my booksigning table.

* * * * *

But back to the Castle. All too soon, we took off our headphones, breathed giant sighs of relief that we’d made it through the two hours without a glitch–even without Denise. But mainly, we were almost incapable of speech because of the intensity of it all. Then G.M. Jack Pelon came in to thank us. Which led to some needed semi-comic relief. “Have you seen our owls?” His office, it turns out, is full of owl photographs he’s taken. Serendipitously, even though it was now day, several of the owls, high up the castle wall, blearingly peered down at us–but their owlet babies were evidently taking a nap so never got to see them.

It is said that owls are wise birds. Judging by this family of owls that condescends to share their castle with its human inhabitants, it appears that they too can sense the calming, peaceful, yet energizing presence of the Great God of Us All in the rooms below.

A Lincoln Civil War Stories                                                                                                                                                                                          Scan_Pic0049

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART THREE

BLOG #24, SERIES #4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #15
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK – PART THREE
June 19, 2013

THE AHWAHNEE HOTEL

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Without question, the Queen of our national park lodges is the Ahwahnee. [The Niwok Indians called the valley “Ahwahnee” – place of the gaping mouth]. Of it, Keith S. Walklet declares, “It has been called the finest hotel in the national park system. Surrounded by three-thousand-foot granite cliffs and forests of immense pines in the heart of California’s Yosemite Valley. The Ahwahnee was built to attract visitors of wealth and means at a time when American society was developing a love affair with the automobile. This monumental hotel of stone, timber, concrete, and steel remains a remarkable achievement, a rare convergence of art and vision, combining the talents of public servants, architects, engineers, designers, and craftsmen.” (Walklet, front-flap of dustjacket).

* * *

Yosemite National Park was, for Stephen T. Mather, Founder of the National Park System, unquestionably, his favorite park. But it needed a hotel that could match the grandeur of the park. After all, automobile ownership had exploded across the nation: In 1915 alone, nearly a million new cars crowded roads meant for stagecoaches and wagons. As for Yosemite, the first all-weather highway (140) was opened in 1925. And car-loads of people poured in!

Both Mather and his able assistant, Horace Albright, envisioned a grand hotel for Yosemite on the scale of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn, the Glacier National Park lodges, and Grand Canyon’s El Tovar. For architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who had already proved his worth at Bryce and Zion, was chosen. But the consensus among the many project principals (architects, bureaucrats, businessmen, visionaries) was that while they desired the proposed hotel to be rustic, they envisioned an elegant country estate that would blend flawlessly with its breathtaking setting. Eventually, two organizations (Curry Camp Company and Yosemite Camp Company) merged, ending decades of wrangling. Mather now had a stellar team of Albright, Underwood, landscape engineer Daniel Hull, and San Francisco contractor James L. McLaughlin, individuals who bickered plenty, but saw through the massive building project that eventually cost $1,250,000 (a vast sum back then).

Originally, it was the plan to build it in the center of the valley, but wiser heads prevailed; it was concluded that it ought to be moved to a more secluded spot, backed up to the massive mountain walls of Royal Arches. A core block six stories high anchored it, and two wings set at angles enabled guests to feast their eyes on Half Dome, Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls, and Royal Arches. One year late, the grand hotel opened on July 14, 1927.

It has wowed the world ever since. Indeed, numbered among its guests are VIPs such as Presidents Hoover, FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan; foreign leaders such as Winston Churchill, King Badouin of Belgium, the exiled Shah of Iran, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (who had the hotel all to themselves), and Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie; Hollywood greats such as Kim Novak, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Red Skelton, Mel Gibson, Robert Redford, Bing Crosby, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Charleton Heston, Boris Karloff, William Shatner, Shirley Temple Black, Helen Hayes, Jack Benny, Leonard Nimoy; and Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball stayed here when filming The Long Long Trailer in the park – the list could go on and on.

ENTER THE WHEELERS AND EARPS

Although a fifth-generation Californian on both sides of my family, and a frequent visitor to the park down through the years, never before had I or my bride stayed at the Ahwahnee. Best I could do on a limited budget was to visit the hotel. Christmas in My Heart readers may remember that the Ahwahnee is part of the worldwide setting of my Christmas story, “Christmas Sabbatical.” It is also slated to play a key role romance-wise in my upcoming novelette-length Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in Christmas in My Heart 22 (due out fall of 2013). But now, since staying in the hotel had been on my Bucket List for so long, I saved my shekels long enough to treat Connie to a two-night stay. Earps too, had long wanted to stay in this legendary Shangri-La of a lodge.

That last week of May 2011 represented a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for the tremendous snowfall of the winter of 2010-2011 was now paying huge dividends: the falls of Yosemite were at a 50-year-high in terms of the volume of water—and not coincidentally: sound! Crowds were already swarming in to see and hear the falls. Before the season was over, 5,000,000 people crowded the valley wall-to-wall.

As our car emerged from the Wawona Tunnel, there spread out before us was one of the grandest views on the planet. Bridalveil Fall was at full strength, but even before we arrived at the Ahwahnee we could hear the thunder of that wonder of the world, Yosemite Falls, hurtling over the canyon wall almost 2600 feet above the valley floor.

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Once checked in, we moved into our room on the second floor; after sprucing up, we gazed out the window at a sight that never ever could grow old. Once downstairs, we began to explore the hotel a bit. Then it was time for another treat: dinner in the largest room in the hotel, the world-famous Dining Room (6,630 square feet; 130 feet long, 51 feet wide, 34 feet high, with vaulted peeled log trusses, 24-foot-high windows, through which we could see and hear Yosemite Falls). The food and service five-star quality, and after a while a concert pianist playing Chopin on the grand piano. Not often, in this journey we call life, have I experienced a sensory overload–but this was one of those times. Mere words came hard, for no one wished to shatter the mood.

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Then, tired from the long day, we had little trouble falling asleep to the thunder of the falls.

Next morning, we all shutterbugged in the verdant grounds of the hotel. Then, an unforgettable breakfast in the great Dining Room, now transformed by the glory of morning light. Then to the Visitor Center to see the splendid film, “Spirit of Yosemite.” Afterwards, we donned coats or rain gear for our walk to the base of Lower Falls. The closer we got to it, the wetter we got; it became almost impossible to hear each other speak. We never were able to get to the base of the falls. And the people kept coming, young and old from all over the world. It is unlikely, in my lifetime, that I’ll ever experience the like again. Later, we took the shuttle to the Mist Trail, and trekked all the way up to the base or Vernal Falls, also boiling over at floodstage. Later in the afternoon, we were privileged to be given a personal VIP tour of the hotel by its genial General Manager; he took us through the lobby, gift store, beautiful Mural Room, the Great Hall (second-largest room in the hotel, flanked by two great fireplaces), kitchen (where we got to talk with the chef and his pastry gurus), even the outside foundation stone. We felt deeply honored by his willingness to spend all this time with us. After eating in the Bar Café, exhausted from the hikes, we quickly fell asleep.

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When the sun, birds, and falls woke us up next morning, it was to an almost unworldly radiance. Not one of us but longed to remain there. For a time, we relaxed and drank in the ambiance of the Great Hall, cups of steaming coffee in hand, and imagined all the events held in that room over three-quarters of a century; all the world-famous celebrities who had walked through those doors.

Then one last breakfast in the Dining Room. When we finally pried ourselves out of our chairs, walked toward the hallway, and turned back for one last look, we felt physical pain at the parting. How could any place else we ever saw or experienced build on such perfection?

Then it was time to leave.  Connie - SW Nat Parks 511

Next week, we complete the Great Circle.

SOURCES USED

Christine Barnes’ Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc., 2002).

Keith S. Walklet’s historical tour de force, The Ahwahnee: Yosemite’s Grand Hotel (Yosemite: DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, 2004).

CHRISTMAS IN MY HEART TURNS 21

BLOG #40, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
CHRISTMAS IN MY HEART® TURNS 21
September 26, 2012

It has arrived. As I sit in my writing rocker, on my lapboard is the reality that for so long has been so much less: first Christmas stories I read and re-read, wrote their titles down in Draft #1, discarded some and substituted others for Draft #2, repeated the process for Draft #3, again for Draft #4, kept discarding other stories that all but demanded to be included that ended up in Draft #5, repeated the process in Draft #6, began feeling better about the collection in Draft #7, better yet with those in Draft #8, almost got there with Draft #9, and only with Draft #10 did I prayerfully conclude that God was pleased with that menu of stories.

Once decided on, I began playing with the order. It is at this stage that I’ve sometimes concluded, for one reason or another, that one story had to go. Sometimes because two stories were too much alike or one of them just didn’t stand up to the competition. Always in the back of my mind is the vow I made to God many years ago: Lord, if any future collection of Christmas stories is less powerful than those that went before, give me the guts to hang it up right there, because I must never, never, never coast!

But this collection stood up under such a re-reading. So which one should be placed in the lead position? A crucial question, for if the lead story fails to suck readers into it, then we risk losing them completely. There were a number that competed for that position in my mind, most notably, Isobel Stewart’s “Christmas in the Heart” —no wonder she loved the series! What jubilation reigned in her house in Helderberg, South Africa when Pacific Press’s Karen Pearson hand-delivered the newest collection to her a year ago. But this year, her story faced tough competition with that battle-hardened veteran, Temple Bailey. I’d just recently stumbled on her wondrous love story titled “The Christmas Quest,” and it just plain dug in its heels and tantrummed its path to the lead position. So I then positioned Stewart’s story next to my own at the end. Always I try to feature one of our strongest stories in that position. Sadly, not long after I sent the manuscript in, Isobel’s husband e-mailed me that the love of his life had passed away. Never in this world would she get to light up with the arrival of another Christmas in My Heart® collection carrying one of her magical stories—often Christmas love stories (a genre our readers treasure above all others!).

Once those two positions were decided, I began wrestling with organizing the rest of them. There is always a rhythm to their appearance: Don’t position two long stories together, but separate them by shorter ones; ditto short ones; normally, I don’t position two tear-jerkers sequentially; don’t place the most powerful ones at the front, the middle, or the end; above all, don’t leave the weaker (of course we try our best to have no weaker ones!) for the end of the book, for the stories ought to reach a crescendo that culminates with my own story. A real challenge, believe me! Especially this year when I made such a departure from my norm and turned to a non-fiction account of the most memorable Christmas of my lifetime. Six of the fifteen finalists turned out to be love stories.

Two stories, Pierre van Paassen’s “Uncle Kees’ Christmas Rebellion” and Willemm Brandt’s “The Candle,” had been in the running for years and years, but each time failed to make the final cut; but this time I felt God saying to me, Their turn has come: include them! Though short, each of them is a masterpiece.

One genre I have usually avoided—other than featuring my own—is the long Christmas story, reason being that to include two long ones in one book results in too few stories in the 128-page collection. But since my own story wasn’t as long as some this year, I was able to include Lucy Agnes Hancock’s unforgettable romance, “Christmas Gift,” one of the longest Christmas stories we’ve ever featured. I’ll be really surprised if it doesn’t do its best to run away with this collection.

I also make a point of featuring contemporary writers as well as time-proven ones; these add vibrancy and uptodatedness to a given collection; this year, making that tenth cut were Virginia A. Johnson’s “Ornament of Grace,” Harriet LaBarre’s “The Magic Key,” Katharine Swartz’s “Star of Hope,” and Jill Hoefler’s “The Empty Box.” Johnson writes from Crabtree, Oregon; LaBarre (96 years old and still writing!) from Sag Harbor, New York; Katharine Swartz from St. Bees Vicarage in Cumbria, England; and Hoefler from Firth, Nebraska.

The oldest story in the collection, first published in 1891, Ella F. Mosby’s “The Christmas Inn,” is set way back in 1465 England.

Then there are other ever so special authors we’ve never featured before: Lola Lamorreaux, Lawrence York, and Leslie Peters. It is always a joy to bring back to life from the very edge of extinction authors whose work deserves to live on!

And I must not forget the bookmark! I just spoke two days ago to Doug Church, Pacific Press’s Vice President of Marketing, who confided in me that he and his marketing team have concluded that one key reason why last year’s collection, Christmas in My Heart® 20, sold out of its first-printing before Christmas was the stunningly beautiful bookmark that was given to each purchaser of the collection. A Barnes & Noble manager told me, “Joe, that bookmark is as beautiful as any of those we sell for $5 each!” The bookmark was taken from the center of the Currier & Ives-ish cover crafted by Steve Lanto. And some people coveted the bookmark so much they bought the book just to get it! So, on this basis, Church told me, they did the same for Christmas in My Heart 21. And he sighed, “Do you have any idea how long it takes for our entire staff to hand-tie all those thousands of tassels? It takes everyone, beginning with the front-desk receptionist, to tie them!” Isn’t that uniquely special? A hand-tied artifact in this age of mass market digitalization!

You can order your copy (copies) from us at P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433. $13.99 each, plus shipping. Or go to our web page and send us an email through the web page: http://www.joewheelerbooks.com. Or send directly to our email: mountainauthor@gmail.com. Let us know if you want your books to be personally inscribed.

May you and yours enjoy a blessed Christmas season!