LOVE LETTER TO AMTRAK – Part Two

BLOG #34, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
LOVE LETTER TO AMTRAK
Part Two
August 26, 2015

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As our long-time blog-readers know, I first wrote about trains a little over a year ago. A number of you responded to that series. Now we were back on the same route, but in late summer rather than spring. Each season, on Amtrak, is different. Indeed, no two journeys in life are ever the same for life never repeats itself.

The reason for this particular trip was a family reunion in the Sierra Nevada Mountains not far from Lassen Volcanic National Park. More on that at a later date.

I’ve become convinced, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that God takes special delight in vicariously traveling on trains. Again and again I’ve seen our universe’s Master Choreographer set up anything-but-chance meetings between His children on trains. For there is something about train travel that lends itself to introspection, to thinking deep thoughts about life, of posing Life’s Three Eternal Questions: Who Am I? Where Have I Come From? And Where Am I Going?

When I travel, I habitually load myself down with comp books to give away to those who appear to be seriously interested in them. This time, since I was traveling by train, I took twelve of my most recent: Sooty, the Green-Eyed Kitten, My Favorite Angel Stories, and My Favorite Miracle Stories; all found homes by the time we detrained in Denver nine days later. In trains, people read.

Just to give you a feel for the people who shared the train with us, I’ll tell you about some of them:

On our westward-bound train two roomettes behind was a vivacious young woman and her in-love-with-life nine-year-old daughter. Since their door was often open and they were often reading aloud to each other, I stopped to get acquainted. Since the little girl loved books about animals, I inscribed Sooty, the Green-Eyed Kitten to her. Within only a couple of hours she was already part way through. The mother was using the train as a vehicle to teach her the geography of our nation. Clearly, the mother strongly controlled electronic gadgetry, for I never saw the girl with one. Instead, she was entranced with all she saw out her window and the people who walked down the hall.

One couple was only going over the Rockies and down to Glenwood Springs (one of the most spectacular train trips on the continent). They planned to stay in a hotel in Glenwood Springs, swim in the vast hot springs pool, wander around town, then board an eastern-bound train back to Denver. This section of the Rockies is extremely popular with Coloradans.

Sitting next to us at breakfast was an athlete from Fresno, California, who plays basketball for Wichita State. He was returning from attending a wedding in Breckenridge, Colorado. He told us he much preferred train travel to air travel. Also at our table was a lady from Nevada City, Nevada who travels a lot, as often as possible by train.

A couple from Wisconsin sat with us at noon. In the Observation Car I sat next to a lovely young graduate in music from BYU. I’ve long been amazed at how many young people travel on trains, seeking answers for life problems. Turns out she was one of them. Deeply troubled by a romance with a young man who did not share her own close relationship with God, she had hoped to find someone on the train she could trust to listen to her story and perhaps offer guidance or suggestions. Above all: kindness, a quality she’d discovered to be all too scarce in this hectic society we live in. She read my own life-changing-story in the new Miracle book—and that convinced her that I could be trusted. Just before she got off in Reno, I inscribed a copy of the Miracle book to her; and she, in turn, inscribed a copy of her new CD release. I shall always treasure the words she wrote on it.

But by that time people to my left and across the aisle asked to see my books, and confessed to having overheard our dialogue. One of them, a grandmother of an eighteen-year-old co-ed was treating both her daughter and granddaughter with this train trip, coast to coast then south to San Diego and back to the East Coast. All in honor of her granddaughter’s graduation and birthday. I inscribed a book to the lucky girl. Two older women traveling together (across the aisle) stopped me and thanked me for taking the time to counsel the BYU graduate. It never ceases to fascinate me to see how open travelers are to share serious, even intimate, things with strangers they’d not even share with family members or close friends; reasoning, no doubt, that they’d never see their traveling listeners again anyhow.

After our five-day family reunion in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we boarded an Amtrak eastward-bound train). On board were two train historians who, on the intercom, pointed out places of historical significance as the train approached them.

Also on the train was Tony, a retiree from New England (and whose single great obsession in life was trains). Even his CHASE credit card was Amtrak-designated. All points translated into Amtrak trips. Also, he regularly attended all key get-togethers for obsessive train devotees like him. In fact, it appears that Amtrak employees across the country recognize him on sight, even calling him by name in the dining car. He regaled us with many fascinating stories about Amtrak culture. He even got to meet the Amtrak president – twice.

We ate lunch with a British family, owners of an ice cream establishment in the UK. Both of their sons are techies, who are so interested in attending the University of California at Berkeley that they both attended a special class for serious applicants there: the younger one was on the train; the older one was still in Berkeley.

At dinner, we got acquainted with an ER doctor and his wife from London. They enthusiastically praised all that they were seeing in America.

Then there was the young techie from Munich, Germany, who had landed a contract job in San Francisco. He’d seen most of our national parks already, and climbed a number of our highest peaks. Indeed, he was planning to climb Long’s Peak ( one of Colorado’s fabled 14-ers) next day. He even liked the relative slowness (up to 80 mph) of U.S. trains, pointing out that many of Europe’s bullet trains move so fast the scenery is just a blur.

Unforgettable too were the young family doctors who were on their way to Colorado’s San Luis Valley where they were setting up a family practice. Their baby boy was the darling of the entire train—everyone, even the Amtrak employees, gravitated into his orbit.

All in all, on Amtrak, you will rub shoulders with people from all around the world. And if you have not yet traveled by train, put it on your Bucket List this very moment. Train trips will enrich your life in ways past quantifying.

Robert Barr’s “The Sword Maker”

BLOG #18, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #40
ROBERT BARR’S THE SWORD MAKER
May 6, 2015

Well, there’s always a first time for everything. Quite candidly, when I re-read Robert Barr’s A Prince of Good Fellows after an interval of over half a century, although I was pleased by the second reading, I failed to recapture my original delight. So much so that when I returned the book to my library after writing the April 1 blog (Blog #13, Series #6), I noticed another Barr title I’d evidently never read before, The Sword Maker. After scanning it, I decided to read it and see if I’d been mistaken about Barr’s writing power.

I had not. I literally could not put The Sword Maker down! Turns out it is a much more unputdownable read than was A Prince of Good Fellows. I didn’t quit reading until I reached the last page in the middle of the night. The result? Concluding that I must follow up last month’s blog by another book by the same author.

The setting is imperial Frankfort in Germany back in medieval times. I’ve always been fascinated by the hilltop castles overlooking the Rhine River, thus when I discovered Barr’s protagonist daring to pit his wits against the robber barons who from time to time brought river commerce to a halt, it was a great opportunity to learn more about that period of German history.

I will be most interested in hearing from you, seeing if or not you agree with my featuring this second Barr title.

For biographical information, please refresh your memory by re-reading the April 1 blog.

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I’m guessing that a number of you will now be interested in reading more of Barr’s novels.

Here’s a list to help you in your search.

•    In a Steamer Chair and Other Stories (1892)
•    The Face and the Mask (1894)
•    In the Midst of Alarms (1894)
•    From Whose Bourne (1896)
•    One Day is Courtship (1896)
•    Revenge! (n.d.)
•    The Strong Arm (n.d.)
•    A Woman Intervenes (1896)
•    Tekla: A Romance of Love and War (1898)
•    Jennie Baxter, Journalist (1899)
•    The Unchanging East (1900)
•    The Victors (1901)
•    Prince of Good Fellows (1902)
•    The O’Ruddy, A Romance, (with Stephen Crane) (1903)
•    The Tempestuous Petticoat (1905)
•    A Rock in the Baltic (1906)
•    The Triumphs of Eugéne Valmont (1906)
•    The Measure of the Rule (1907)
•    Stranleigh’s Millions (1909)
•    The Sword Maker (1910)
•    The Palace of Logs (1912)

* * * * *

The Sword Maker by Robert Barr (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1910).

What Was the World Like 100 Years Ago?

BLOG #36, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHAT WAS THE WORLD LIKE
100 YEARS AGO?

September 3, 2014

In a nutshell, it was a different world from the one we live in today. In many ways, changed very little from what it had been for more than a millennium. As 1914 approached, so many things seemed to be going right for the nobility, princes and princesses, kings and queens and emperors.

Ever since Darwin, there had been the perception that the world was rapidly becoming a better place. According to evolutionary theory, it was assumed we could expect global peace in the future. As Emile Coeu famously put it, “Every day, in every way, I’m becoming better and better.” It was then easy to believe in the goodness of God: God would no longer permit mankind to do terrible things to each other.

Back then, England ruled the world, thus, ruling over one quarter of the globe, it was said, “The sun never sets over the British Empire.” At the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, her sway extended over half of North America, slices of Central and South America, a vast part of Africa, a whole continent in Australia, some of the richest lands in Asia (including India), plus other island possessions spread clear across the globe. It was the British sea-power that enabled it to rule over the ocean, and Britain’s merchant fleet that made Britain the greatest of all trading nations.

On the European continent, the Hohenzollern Kaisers had gradually forged such a powerful military power that the German army was perceived as being almost invincible. And now, vain, impulsive Kaiser Wilhelm II worshiped the art of war. A huge naval shipbuilding program had begun in order to challenge Britain’s supremacy over the seas.

France had mostly recovered from its 1870 defeat at the hands of Germany. France now had a world-wide empire, second in size only to the British.

East was the vast land called Russia, composed of one-eighth of the land mass of the world. A proud and imperialistic nation ruled by the Romanoff czars, now Nicholas II. Nicholas, a narrow-minded aristocrat who wholeheartedly believed in the divine right of kings and was totally oblivious to the plight of his people, was incapable of handling the forces sweeping across the steppes of the empire. Politically inept, he was dependent on his strong-willed czarina, Alexandra, who was herself manipulated by the Svengalian mystic, Rasputin.

Dominating Central Europe was the far-flung Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by its beloved emperor, Franz Joseph, last of the great Hapsburg monarchs. The empire shouldn’t even have existed, yet somehow did, composed as it was of 12,000,000 Germans, 10,000,000 Magyars [Hungarians], 6,000,000 Czechs, 5,000,000 Poles, 4,000,000 Ukrainians, 3,700,000 Serbs and Croats, 3,300,000 Rumanians, 2,500,000 Slovaks, 1,300,000 Slovenes, and 800,000 Italians. But all those diverse peoples remained a unit mainly because of the respect they had for the emperor. In reality, it was just one big powder keg waiting to explode. And Franz Joseph was old.

Then there was the increasingly formidable Japanese Empire. To the north, Japan annexed the Kuriles; to the south and east, the Ryukyus, the Bonins, the Volcanoes, and Marcus Island. After its victorious war against China in 1894-95, the Japanese annexed Taiwan and the Pescadores; and Korea became a vassal. In 1904, Japan had an epic showdown with Russia, and won. Nicholas II never recovered from that ignominious disaster. So now, Japan was spoiling for a fight in order to acquire even more territory.

Thus the western world was ruled from five great cities: London, Berlin, Moscow, Vienna, and Paris. Most all the European royal houses had intermarried to the extent that they were all cousins.

It is fascinating to read eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction. The protagonists, the heroes and heroines of that age were invariably royal, among the nobility, or aristocratic. In America, it seemed every girl yearned to marry a prince, duke, earl, count, or lord. And many did just that. Reason being that the European aristocracy and nobility, due to their frivolous and lavish lifestyles, were almost always in debt: desperately needing money. Since there were plenty of rich Americans who had lots of money, and would gladly pawn off their daughters to the highest bidder, Americans bought their way into European high society. That most of those marriages had nothing to do with love, yoking title to money, more often than not, they proved disastrous.

It would not be until the end of World War I, and the resulting doom of royal supremacy, that fictional heroes and heroines shifted away in the direction of media, entertainers, and sports protagonists, such as we see today.

The tragedy of 1914 was that, in reality, no one deep down really wanted war. Times were good. Sidewalk cafes were full. Monarchies were becoming ever more democratic, the middle class was increasingly prosperous, education was becoming more and more accessible to all, European tours were something more and more people wanted to take. In most cases the populace would rather have the ruler they had (the devil they knew) than the ruler they didn’t know (the devil they didn’t know).

Then came June 28, 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo, Serbia, on a state visit, was assassinated.

And the world exploded into war . . . and has never been the same since.

References: The Five Worlds of Our Lives (New York: Newsweek, Inc., 1961).

I Have Seen Tomorrow! Part Two

BLOG #32, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
I HAVE SEEN TOMORROW!
Part Two
August 8, 2012

As we know, an epiphany is a life-changing day. Looking backwards through time, we can pick out certain days that, had they not have been, our lives would have taken a different trajectory than was true with them. I strongly suspect that our tour through the great printing plant may prove to be one of them.

Our illustrious guide honed our sense of anticipation by hyping in almost every room we toured the piéce de résistance that awaited us at the end: something—we weren’t told what—that would radically change the publishing world.

But early on, we were ushered through the world we knew. What shocked us was our guide’s off-hand dismissal of them as being already passé. Examples: “This machine [huge, filling most of a very large room] was state of the art back in 2000” . . . . “This machine [yes it was built in Germany like so many of the finest and fastest printing machines] came out in 2003. Dated now” . . . . “This machine came out in 2005—revolutionary for its time” . . . . “This made real waves back in 2008″ . . . . This machine—oh it’s so 2010!” [as if it were already a dinosaur]. “This is one of our newest ones—2011—still the best of its kind.” And then: 2012.

After being plied with question about why 2012 was so significant in the history of printing, our guide pointed out that for over half a millennium—ever since Gutenberg—,speed has been the constant goal. If the fastest press known to man could run off 100 sheets in an hour, one that could do 200 represented a notable breakthrough. So there came a long line of ever-faster machines, machines that made obsolete everything slower that came before.

He showed us the current workhorse of the establishment: one they used for print-runs for 20,000 – 30,000 books at a time. They are so expensive to purchase and operate that they lose money on book-runs of fewer than 20,000 copies. I had a sudden flashback: hearing editors say, “Unless your book sells a minimum of 20,000 copies, we’re not interested in keeping it in print.” “So could this machine be the reason?” I asked our guide. “Bingo!” was the response.

But back to the break-through machine. Our guide informed us that throughout printing history lithography (dot-based printing) has had a finite limit—sort of like the old sound-barrier (many prophesied that no one would ever be able to fly faster than sound); but, as we all know, that threshold has long since been passed, so that today no one knows whether or not there is a limit to aeronautical speed.

Seeing the bemused look on our faces, our guide smiled and said, “Here’s the problem that has faced modern engineers for so long that many maintained we’d reached our printing speed ceiling. As the press spits out printed sheets at faster and faster speeds, you reach a point where the ink blurs, blobs (loses its distinctiveness), and you’re forced to back off. But companies—even nations, especially printing giants such as Germany and Japan—have for years been in an engineering race to see which one might accomplish the impossible: break the printing speed barrier.

And then we walked into another room—and there it was!. To the deep chagrin of Germany and Japan, Hewlett Packard’s engineers came up with the break-through. So America can yet triumph technologically over the rest of the world. Our guide tried to explain how, in layman’s terms, the miracle works: a different sequence of print color applications—I must confess, as being one of the world’s most technologically deprived thinkers, that I only vaguely understand why this one works and all the others don’t. All I know is that it does. And TerryBolinger and I were able to reverently touch one of fewer than a dozen such machines in the world.

Now, they say, using this breakthrough technology, press-runs may now speed up so fast, thanks to nanotechnology, that there appears to be no upper limits—opening up the probability that sooner than one might think, authors will be told that the next big machine will print so fast that only the works of best-selling authors selling in seven, eight, or nine figures will qualify.

So, does this mean all hope is gone for all of us lesser-lights? Is there no hope for the continuing existence of slower-selling but continuing-to-sell books that never go out of vogue?

We’ll get into that next Wednesday.

A Trembling World, Part Two

 A TREMBLING WORLD
 Part Two

 WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

In earlier blogs, I have referred to my own fascination with the turning of zeroes, how every fin de siecle results in a fruit basket-upset of all the values by which society lives.

Well, the last eleven years have proved that my assumption remains valid.  Almost nothing is the same as it was back in the 1990’s.

For one thing, never before has our planet been more interconnected, with national borders meaning less than today.  The world wide web has nailed the lid on that old order.  Thanks to this web, dictatorships are falling like so many dominoes in the Middle East.  But what takes their place is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the supreme question is this: Is democracy possible in the Muslim World?  Or does the theocratic nature of Islam preclude the establishment of a true democracy.  As I write these words, thoughtful Egyptians are extremely apprehensive about what may follow Mubarak.  No one knows if Tunisia is capable of establishing a free society.  The same is true of Libya.  Turkey has been tilting backwards from a secular free society towards theocratic governance.

What we do know is that all across the Middle East there is a yearning for the freedoms we westerners take for granted.

STAGGERING TOWARDS A NEW TEMPLATE

What is coming at us, no one knows.  All we know is that there are ominously deep cracks in the old one.  According to famed economist, Kenneth Rogoff, “Europe and the U.S. are not experiencing a typical recession or even a double-dip Great Recession. That problem can ultimately be corrected with the right mix of conventional policy tools like quantitative easing and massive bailouts.  Rather, the West is going through something much more profound: a second Great Contraction of growth, the first being the period after the Great Depression.  It is a slow-or no-growth waltz that plays out not over months but over many years. [Quoted by Rana Foroohar, in “The Decline and Fall of Europe (and maybe the West),” Time, August 22, 2011].

In the U.S., as elsewhere in the world, what is desperately needed is not politicians but statesmen: men and women who put the good of their country over mere re-election.  In times like these, weakness at the top will inevitably prove fatal.  Not a temporizing Chamberlain but a Washington, a Lincoln, a TR or FDR—a Winston Churchill.  This is why so many current “leaders” are going to be “weighed in the balances and found wanting.” (See William Broyles “Oval Office Appeaser” (Newsweek, Aug. 22, 29, 2011).

Foroohar is anything but optimistic in her analysis: “The euro is the only viable alternative to the dollar as a global reserve currency.  The British pound is history, and emerging-market currencies are still too small, volatile and controlled.  And while plenty of investors are fleeing into gold, the world gold market isn’t big enough to accommodate serious dollar diversification without massive inflation in gold itself. . . .  It is unclear at this stage whether the euro will even survive the debt crisis that has engulfed Europe, one that is in many ways worse than the one we’re experiencing in the U.S.”

So, will Germany be the white horse that rides to Europe’s rescue” Foroohar is doubtful: “Even in good times, it is never easy to balance the fiscal needs of a high-cost exporter like Germany with those of cheap and cheerful service economies like Greece, Spain, and Portugal.  In bad times, it’s impossible.”

What about the U.S., are we likely to be the white horse again like we were after World Wars I and II?  Foroohar’s assessment of that likelihood is bleak: “both Europe and the U.S. will continue to struggle with the crisis of the old order.  Populations will have to come to terms with no longer being able to afford the public services they want.  Investors will have to cope with a world in which AAA assets aren’t what they used to be.  Businesses will deal with stagnating demand, and workers will face flat wages and high unemployment. . . .  It’s the end of an era in which the West and western ideas of how to create prosperity succeeded.  The crisis in Europe and the challenges yet to come on either side of the Atlantic take us into a whole new era.”

So, with Japan still reeling in the East, does that leave China as the answer?  Not likely.  China’s current growth rate of 8% will inevitably stall, and ominously its people are pouring billions into a housing bubble that may be even worse than those experienced by Japan and the U.S. (See Niall Ferguson’s “Gloating China, Hidden Problems,” Newsweek, August 22, 29, 2011).

So what are our options?

Next Wednesday, we’ll discuss some of them.