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.

Making Memories with Grandparents – Part 4 – Seth’s 2014 Cruise

BLOG #45, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART FOUR
SETH’S 2014 CRUISE

November 5, 2014

For two years after Taylor’s cruise, the big question was, “Is Seth even interested in mastering the geography of the world?” After all, he’d seen how much work it took for his mother and Taylor to successfully complete such a learning marathon. Furthermore, given that Seth is such an “I’m-the-boss-of-me” individualist, just because

Cezanne’s home in Aix en Provence

IMG_5321his brother did it would not by itself mean much if Seth himself wasn’t equally interested in such a challenge. And, just as was true with Taylor, not until his twelfth birthday did he give the green light to his mother.

Turns out the pace was similar. Not until we were within days of his thirteenth birthday did he clear his last hurdle. When Seth was asked what he’d most like to travel to, he was succinct: “Islands and deep blue sea!” And just as was true with Taylor, his summer sports program was so demanding that we only had a three-to-four-week window to work with; consequently, that reduced our cruise options to a rather small number. We didn’t want to book a cruise that was a carbon copy of Taylor’s because we wanted Seth to feel that there were aspects of the itinerary that were his alone.

In the end, we booked early, in order to get an advance rate, with a cancellation clause that permitted us to back out if Seth failed to complete his challenge in tine. We found a cruise on the Norwegian Spirit that played all the destination hits (from one end of the Mediterranean clear to the other).

Here is the itinerary:

July 3, 2014 – Arrive in Barcelona
July 5 – Leave Barcelona
July 6 – Toulon, Aix en Provence in France
July 7 – Liverno, Florence and Pisa
July 8 – Citavecchia, and Rome
July 9 – Naples, and the Isle of Capri
July 10 – At Sea
July 11 – Mykonos, Greece
July 12 – Istanbul, Turkey
July 13 – Ephesus
July 14 – Athens, Cape Sounion Temple of Poseidon
July 15 – At Sea
July 16 – Venice
July 17 – Return to Philadelphia

As we tested Seth, it didn’t take me long to discover that he was especially susceptible to side-trips beyond the required. In that, he reminded me of my own Grandpa Herbert Leininger, who’d always suffered from an incurable itch to find out what was on the other side of a given hill.

He even expressed his own individuality in his written response to being sent a journal with the trip’s itinerary pasted in at the front of it, and symnopses of each day-trip we had booked.

He wrote,

“Dear Grammy and Poppy,

Thank you for dedicating the last 13 years to save up to take me on a journey of a lifetime. I can’t wait until then. We will have a great time. I wonder what the hotel room on the ship will look like. There are so many things I wonder what will be like. Can’t wait to see you guys.

Love, Seth”

This time, Greg didn’t even try to surprise the new traveler. Of course, he wanted to go along. But no more cramming four people into one small stateroom; he booked an adjoining room for him, and we had Seth bunk with him. Both times, it was great to have Greg along. Of course, the whole purpose of both cruises was the opportunity, at least once in each grandson’s lifetime, to be able to give them our undivided attention. But even so, given that Greg was only one generation removed rather than two (our case), it gave both boys two generational options rather than just grandparent/grandchild.

_MG_5500St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome

This time, we made the transatlantic flight without Greg, as he was flying straight to Munich in order to pick up a brand new BMW there. He later met us at the ship early afternoon of the sailing day.

It didn’t take us long to discover that Seth had three obsessions: science, art, and sports. Words too: from someplace he inherited a love for words—individualized, like Ogden Nash, in his case. Rarely a day in which he failed to coin a new word.

At Barcelona, we were lucky enough to get an early check-in, so after our long transatlantic flight we were able to crash for four hours before venturing out on Las Ramblas. Seth was particularly fascinated with the mime who was impersonating Salvador Dali, complete with long twirly mustache. That evening we played a domino game our family calls either “O’Henry” or “Ah Shucks.”

When we got to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, next day, after ten hours sleep, we had to wait in long long lines over an hour and a half just to get tickets—and then two more hours waiting to get in. It was truly amazing to see how much progress had been made in only three years. Of course, 25,000,000 people a year, each paying a hefty admission price, ought to result in progress!

Later on, I was traumatized to discover that somewhere along the way I’d dropped three sets of very expensive bus tickets. We completed the day’s activity by a visit to the great Palace of Art on the hill. Seth was especially fascinated by the Gothic and Romanesque art.

Next day, finally got into the magnificent Palace of Catalonian Music — hadn’t even been able to get in three years before.

Then, check-out, meeting Greg at the ship, and we were on our way late in the afternoon. No storms this time.

Two days later, in Florence, we lucked out with a much more effective and articulate guide than the one Taylor had lampooned three years before. I’ve discovered over the years that great guides can make a trip and poor guides wreck them.

In Rome, we braved long lines in order to get Seth into Michelangelo’s magnificent St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Next day, high up on the legendary Isle of Capri—first time ever for Connie and me—, by agreement, we separated into two groups of two. Almost disaster! Connie and Seth waited at the Clock Tower rather than the bus stop, so after waiting a time, the other bus passengers left for the fast ship back to Naples. The guide stayed with Greg and me. Finally, Greg was able to get through to Connie’s almost dead cell phone, and the guide put us on a separate bus. We just made the last ship back!

GangFormal(1) Our Formal attire for dinner one night!

Seth’s journal commentary was uniquely Seth-ish:

July 3 – “When we went through security [Philadelphia Airport] Grammy got searched because her bling-pants set off the beep.”

July 7 – Florence and Pisa – “Today was fun. It was tiring though. It took a little more than 10 hours. This was Florence too and not just Pisa. We saw 2 cities! I also got some cool pics of me and leaning tower. We had the BEST GUIDE EVER! She could actually speak English we could understand.”

July 8 – Rome -“Today we had a ninja tour guide, she kept walking away, expecting all of us to follow, leaving about 10 people behind each time…. We only had 10 minutes in the Colosseum. It shtank!”

July 9 – “Capri – O.M.G. Island with clear water. I took a chairlift to the top of the island. I’m still trying to take in the awesome view. It was so majestic.

July 11 – Mykonos – “Clear water! Yah! I went to Greece! The water was as clear as this circle. [He drew a circle]. It was pretty warm too. I stuck my foot in the water… Or accident, with my shoe on. The greek houses were sicik [sic] too, all white and blue highlights.”

July 12 – Istanbul – “Yah, another cool guide. I got 1 spinnything [a top] and we got 4 scarves for Mom and Grammy… Sheese! There was also a cool welcoming band. We went into a mosque where we had to not wear shoes and Grammy had to wear a thing on her head.”

July 13 – Ephesus – “YESSSS! [pronounced with an h sound at the end]. I slept in. Today was okay but we had the best food than the other excursions. Uncle Greg and I got lost/separated from our group, but we eventually found the group again.”

No journal entry for Athens and Venice. A pity. But Seth compensated for it on the last day of the cruise (almost every day he coins a new word): SHMECKLE – for thingees, words, or terms you can’t think of , or any word you want to substitute for.

I had earlier suggested to Seth that he’d be protective of his Grammy as there are so many pickpockets in the crowded streets. He took me at my word, and almost invariably he’d be protecting one side of her, and expecting Greg or me to cover the other. For crowd-control purposes, each bus-load of people is given in advance stickers designating which bus to board for a designated tour. Seth delighted in later planting those stickers somewhere where we wouldn’t notice them – often on our back-sides somewhere.

_MG_6098Our Sticker Boy!

All too soon, we had to bid adieu to the Norwegian Spirit in Venice; Greg flew back to Munich to pick up his BMW for a few days before having it shipped home to him, and we boarded the plane for Philadelphia.

When I asked Seth to rank his experiences, this is how he did it:

1. View from the Isle of Capri [just as Taylor fell in love with the nearby Amalfi Coast, Seth will most likely never ever forget the sight of the incredibly deep blue sea as seen from the ramparts of Capri].

2. Sagrada Familia [like Taylor before him, he was overwhelmed by the interplay of light inside—it literally takes one’s breath away].

3. Free Soft-Serve Ice Cream! [Seth gave Taylor a run for his money in his multitudinous raids on the poor ice cream machine on the ship].

4. Venice. Especially the late afternoon gondola ride.

5. Pool-side Strawberry Daiquiris. [Clearly, the boys are related!]

6. Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

7. Soccer on the ship! [Everyone in Europe, it seemed, was riveted to the World Cup soccer play-offs; besides that, Seth played soccer on evenings or sea days, with other young people on the ship].

8. Pisa and Florence.

9. Beaches of Mykonos

10. Aix en Provence.

As to Seth’s post-cruise thoughts, he too has developed an apparently incurable case of travelitis. Any time we now go anywhere without him, he sulks.

* * * * *

On Nov. 12, I’ll wind up this series on grandparenting, with some last thoughts and conclusions.

Photos by Greg Wheeler.