Remaking Our Brains

BLOG #15, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
REMAKING OUR BRAINS
April 15, 2015

This was the weekend of our annual Conifer Kiwanis Reading Celebration for the third-graders who attend six mountain elementary schools here in the Colorado Rockies. Also for a large consortium of homeschoolers.

Before we honored the kids for their reading improvement, I gathered close to 90 third-graders on the floor around me, and urged them to make reading central to their lives. Since I poured thirty years of observation and research into my 1992 book, TV on Trial, and one of my main doctoral concentrations had to do with the relationship between reading and writing, and since those areas have remained central to me during my entire academic teaching career, I felt this occasion offered me a golden opportunity to plant seeds in these young minds.

I pointed out to them that there are two ways they can feed their brains: Reading and Electronic Imagery. Reading has been with us clear back to ancient times, but most significantly since the advent of printing, some six centuries ago. Electronic imagery is much more recent: around the turn of the twentieth century with the advent of moving pictures.

Today, electronic imagery has become so ubiquitous it increasingly has pushed reading onto the ropes, with some even questioning whether it can survive at all.

So, I pointed out to the third-graders that there are two significant differences between reading and electronic media: Reading is a creative process; electronic imagery tends to be creative only for those who create it. Reading is connotative. In other words, every time a person opens a book and begins reading, something exciting happens: that person’s brain shifts into its creative gear as the reader cranks out non-stop inner imagery that has the potential to actually change the brain into a powerhouse.

I introduced two contrasting word processes: “denotative” and “connotative.” Denotative has to do with the dictionary definition of a word. Let’s take, for instance, the word “father”; the dictionary definition is “a man who has begotten a child.” That’s all there is to it.

But the connotative process is so explosive it borders on the mind-numbing, for it has the potential, over time, to remake the brain. I pointed out that as you read the word “father,” if you have a loving father you adore, the mental image you create will tend to mirror that; but what if you have an abusive father? That would contribute to a much darker mental image. And no two readers ever create exactly the same mental imagery from the same words! For each individual is one-of-a-kind. That is why cloning would be such a terrible thing. As a person reads, word after word after word triggers the creation of mental imagery in the reader’s brain. So much so that just one book has the potential to create seismic differences in the reader’s outlook on life. But that’s not all, by any means. Each author writes in a different way from other authors; this is why Google enables teachers to catch plagiarists so easily, and why it borders on the impossible that an anonymous writer can long remain anonymous. The reader reads works by Alcott, Tolkien, Blume, Milne, Seuss, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Twain, or Martin Luther King, Jr.—; those stylistic differences are stored in inner templates, each of which may be drawn from when the reader begins to write herself/himself.

Depending upon whether the reader reads from a wide variety of books, stories, essays, etc. written by authors worth reading as opposed to stalling out on mental pablum; the former is likely to develop into a powerhouse and the latter into straitjacketed narrowism.

* * *

But what if individuals read no books and little of anything else, and instead feed the mind with electronic imagery (the norm for untold millions today), what happens to their minds? When one is watching television, cinema, video, or other electronic genres, whether one person is watching a given source or a billion people are watching it, every last one is internalizing the same picture! Reason being that the receiver’s brain has had nothing to do with the image’s creation—someone else did that. In fact, the receiver’s brain is completely bypassed: BAM! The image is blasted into the receiver’s brain. But it is not internalized for it is a foreign object. It is a self-standing entity that just sits there. Over time, as these foreign objects take up more and more space in the receiver’s brain, that person all but loses the creative potential that individual was born with.

In the collegiate freshman composition classes I’ve taught over the years, I’ve seen replayed the two species again, again, and again. When I tell a class, “Take out a blank piece of paper. We are going to write. . . . Now write!” It matters little whether I give them a subject to write about or let them choose, the results are the same each time: the reader, having all the internalized imagery of many authors’ books and stories synthesized into the memory banks, stylistic templates too, can hardly wait to start writing—and then the pen races across the page. The non-reader, almost invariably, just sits there glassy-eyed, like Bambi on ice. Since there is precious little in their brains that wasn’t created by someone else, there isn’t much they can draw from. And since they don’t read, they don’t know how to write either. Structurally, they are equally at sea. Since electronic imagery explodes at them from all directions, little of it structured, their thought-processes tend to be equally unstructured and disjointed. This is also true when they speak in public.

Furthermore, even in the business world, non-readers are handicapped. Studies have shown that when employing CEOs test them to see which applicant would be the best fit for a job, they are often given a task composed of, say five, steps in which to reach desired completion. Deliberately and unannounced, the CEO leaves out a step. So a reader moves from step to step: A to B, B to C, C to D, D to E, and E to F—only D to E is left out. The reader reaches this abyss, is puzzled , but doesn’t give up. Since the reader has developed a part of the brain scholars call the “library,” in which the brain talks to itself, the applicant, much like a spider, launches filaments out into the void, seeking for a terminus on the other side. Sooner or later, one of the filaments touches solid ground; the applicant now bridges to the other side and moves from E to F, and completes the task. The non-reader never can complete the task. Even when both applicants are college graduates with 4-point grade A averages, the results are still the same. A neighbor of mine, an executive himself, and a veteran administrator and employer, when I shared this study with him, explained, “So that’s it! I’ve long wondered why some top graduates could problem-solve and others failed so dismally. It makes sense!”

* * * * *

Sadly, our society has yet to recognize just how essential reading is to life and career success, even in areas that are not generally considered as demanding a reading background.

Are Books Dead? Third-Grade Readers at the Crossroads

BLOG #8, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ARE BOOKS DEAD?
THIRD-GRADE READERS AT THE CROSSROADS
February 25, 2015

Scan_Pic0146February 8, 2007

Author Joe Wheeler, foreground left, and fellow Kiwanian Barry Sweeney, encouraged children to read by handing out certificates and books at Beaver Ranch on Feb. 3, 2007.

It appears to be a national consensus that unless a child falls in love with reading by the third grade, it is extremely unlikely that the child ever will. Because of this, thirteen years ago, the Conifer, Colorado Kiwanis Club launched out on uncharted waters. We had no guidebook, no map; we just knew something ought to be done about it. After all, every week, we recited the Kiwanis mantra, our reason for being: “Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world—one child and one community at a time. Kiwanis is for kids here, there, and everywhere.”

Over time, gradually, we felt our way, as we adopted five elementary schools: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jefferson [Jeff, for short]. Recently, because there are so many homeschooling families in the Mountain Corridor, we added them as well.

Each year, we raise money for books; not bureaucracy or infrastructure—just books.

Because for us, this one thing we do, we have had an impact far greater than the size of our club would warrant. All our fund-raising is centered on reading. In my own case, every December, because every penny above cost of my books goes directly to third-grade readers, the largest grocery stores in the area permit us Kiwanians to set up inside the store. Kiwanians man the table and I inscribe from a very large selection of our in-print and out-of-print books. We also raise money by sponsoring a rest stop for bikers in the annual Triple Bypass Bike Race (“triple” meaning that it features three passes over 11,000 feet); drawing 4,000 – 6,000 bikers every year. And we also seek other sources of funding.

And every year, we Kiwanians hold a Reading Celebration for third-graders and their families, as well as their teachers and principals. On that occasion, the kids get to see Mr. Ron Lewis’s buffalo herd close up (he’s our club president), partake of refreshments, receive certificates of reading achievements, have one of my books (chosen by the child) personally inscribed as a gift from me. They will also join their teachers and principals, school by school, and tell us how last year’s money was spent, and how they feel about reading. They are then awarded the check for the upcoming year.

Scan_Pic0149February 27, 2014

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That’s the fun part for me. During the past two weeks I have made appointments with area principals and third-grade teachers, to enter the classrooms and personally invite the third-graders to come to the Marshdale Reading Celebration. I brought with me fourteen of my books: ten collections of animal stories (series titled “The Good Lord Made Them All”), Showdown (sports stories for boys), Bluegrass Girl (horse stories for girls), The Talleyman Ghost (mystery stories for girls), and The Secrets of Creeping Desert (mystery stories for boys). Each attendee will choose one later, after first receiving parental permission to do so. Then I leave full-color posters depicting the 14 book covers with each teacher. By the time I leave, the kids are excited.

Often the teachers grant me time to talk with the kids about both reading and writing, and how they go together. At that age, being an author is a magical thing to them. When they’re told that I’ve written/edited 89 books so far, they are in awe. When I ask for questions, they are so excited, almost every hand is raised. Believe me, when all the third-grade sections are brought into one room for my annual visit, one section seated at their desks and the other sections seated on the floor (50 – 80 kids at a time), and seeing all those hands waving for my attention, it is an exciting thing to behold. Third-grade is a perfect grade to target for they are still excited about life and reading; fourth grade is too late.

This year, one of our schools, Elk Creek Elementary School, is being honored because its students made the 98th percentile in state-wide reading scores! Which gives Kiwanis validation for the thirteen years we’ve partnered with these area schools. And with parents–for unless they are partnering with us at home, our efforts are limited. But together, we can accomplish miracles!

As I see it, if my entire life were to be judged by just lighting the eyes of these children, one at a time, with the joy of learning, reading, writing, creating—it would be worth having lived.

Kate Douglas Wiggin’s “The Birds’ Christmas Carol”

BLOG #48, SERIES #5
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #36
KATE DOUGLAS WIGGIN’S THE BIRDS’ CHRISTMAS CAROL

November 26, 2014

Each of you—even those I’ve never had the privilege of hearing from—who honor me by being a member of Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club, will no doubt remember that every Christmas I’ve turned back the pages of time to a Christmas book that has warmed my heart down through the years. For our first Christmas (Nov. 23, 2011), we shared two books: Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel –Dickens with his inimitable male Scrooge and Brown with her equally memorable female Scrooge.

A year later (Nov. 28, 2012), we shared Lloyd C. Douglas’s moving Home for Christmas. Then last year (Dec. 4, 2013), we journeyed through the ancient East with Henry Van Dyke’s unforgettable Artaban (The Other Wise Man).

(1888 First Edition)

(1888 First Edition)

 

Now, for our fourth Christmas together, I am finally caving in to all the importuning readers over the last 23 years who have repeatedly urged me to include Kate Douglas Wiggin’s beloved little book, The Birds’ Christmas Carol (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1888) in the Christmas in My Heart® series. I never have, because it is too long, but I can make it our 2014 Christmas book of the year.

St. Luke, of course, told us the greatest Christmas story of all. However, it was left to Charles Dickens, in 1843, to gift the world with the first fictional Christmas book: A Christmas Carol.

Twenty-five years later, Louisa May Alcott brought the four Alcott sisters to life at Christmas time, in Little Women (1868-9). Beth has to be one of the most sentimental and most beloved heroines in all family literature. Just as was true in real life, Beth dies way too young. In my American Literature class discussions, even the macho males who initially groused about having to read “a girls’ book”, after reading it admitted to their classmates that they too had wept over Beth.

Twenty years later (1888) Kate Douglas Wiggin built upon Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Alcott’s depiction of Beth to gift her audience with a Beth-like character of her own—Carol Bird.

The author, Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923) was born in Philadelphia, then the family moved to Hollis, MN. She was homeschooled, then studied at various seminaries and academies. When 17, she joined her family in California; after teaching in Santa Barbara, she moved to San Francisco where she established the first free kindergarten on the West Coast. Her first husband, Samuel B. Wiggin, died young; she later married George C. Riggs. She died in England.

(1929 Popular Edition)

(1929 Popular Edition)

Among her books are The Story of Patsy (1883), The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1888), Timothy’s Quest (1890), The Story Hour (with Nora A. Smith, 1890), Polly Oliver’s Problem (1893), A Cathedral Courtship (1893), Penelope’s Progress (1898), The Story of Waitstill Baxter (1913), Ladies in Waiting (1918), her autobiography, My Garden of Memories (1923), and a number of others. But her reputation rests on two books: The Birds’ Christmas Carol and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Both were bestsellers, but Rebecca swept the nation, no small thanks to two movies: the first (1917) was a silent film with an organ score – Francis Marion wrote a splendid screenplay for it, and kept it faithful to the book. The film was directed by Marshal Neilan and starred Mary Pickford, Eugene O’Brien, Josephine Crowell, Helen Jerome Eddy, Charles Ogle, Marjorie Daw, ZaSu Pitts, and Mayme Kelso. According to Derek Elley, “Mary Pickford plays as she never played before, varying lights and shades to elicit the major interest, tearful at one moment and laughing the next. Her support is flawless, embodying many artists of repute.” The second film (1938) all but abandons the original novel in favor of a bouncy musical. It was directed by Allen Dwan, produced by Raymond Griffith, photoplay by Arthur Miller. It had a star-studded cast: Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, Jack Haley, Gloria Stuart, Helen Westly, Bill Robinson, Phyllis Brooks, Slim Summerville, and William Demarest. As would be expected, Shirley Temple steals the show. The plot: a talented stage child who wins a broadcasting moppet contest.

The Birds’ Christmas Carol was never filmed; nevertheless it benefitted mightily from the two Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms films’ publicity and hype.

You may well ask. Why all the sentimentality in The Birds’ Christmas Carol? Why all the fuss about a girl dying young?

Frontispiece - 1888 Edition

Frontispiece – 1888 Edition

Here’s why: Up until the early 20th century, half of all children died during their childhood or teen years. Since medicine was still in its infancy, sanitation wasn’t even thought of, antibiotics didn’t exist, nostrums were taken seriously, doctors were poorly trained, and hospitals were little used—people tended to be born at home, and die at home. As a result, parents were terrified by any childhood ailment, no matter how minor it might seem. Reason being: there were back then no reliable cures for anything. Most any infliction could end your life. And most women died from childbirth complications because neither doctors nor midwives washed their hands between patients.

Case in point: How well I remember my paternal grandfather, Rollo Wheeler, who though he and Grandma Ruby had eleven children, two of them—little Eva and little Arthur—died young and in his arms at home. So just mention either to him, and he’d weep.

Plus, the 1880s was a most sentimental decade. The traditional family was strong, God and country were celebrated, Father earned the living, and Mother was the almost deified madonna of the home. Children were protected from adult realities and taboos (unlike today). So since death was such an unfathomable mystery, the gradual departure of a young life was both celebrated and sentimentalized.

Offsetting the trauma of Carol’s long decline, Wiggin wisely offset it by the rollicking comic relief represented by the large Ruggles family next door.

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition

Frontispiece: 1929 Edition

 

* * * * *

So, with all this as a preamble, search out an early text. But try to get the Houghton Mifflin original text with original illustrations by H.R.H. But the so-called “Popular Edition” (1929), with color and b/w illustrations by Helen Mason Grose is equally attractive. If at all possible, don’t settle for anything but top condition in this heirloom book. When you read it, block out 21st century realities from your mind and pretend you are a turn-of-the-century reader.

Will be most interested in your reactions.

 

THE GIRL WITH DANCING EYES

BLOG #46, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE GIRL WITH DANCING EYES

November 12, 2014

She would not have been unusual during my growing-up-years—but she is now. She was reading the Scripture text at church: clearly, each word perfectly enunciated, with deep feeling. And her eyes—they lit up the entire church. I literally could not take my eyes off of her.

After church, I spoke with her. I learned quite a bit about her upbringing, but learned little I had not already surmised. I complimented her on the sense of wonder radiating from her eyes—but really it was the parents who deserved the fuller credit for them. For it was they who have so far protected her from losing that God-given sense of wonder all babies are born with, but oh so few retain more than months.

So why, if her eyes are wonder-filled, do I label her “The Girl with Dancing Eyes”? This is why: When she was in church, her eyes were wonder-filled reverent eyes; but, one-on-one, outside of church—I was not a stranger to her (her family reads from my books)—, though the wonder remained in her eyes, there was a joyousness, tied to an entrancing addition of impishness, that was absolutely irresistible: the only word that adequately capsulizes the totality is “Dancing.”

But why is she not the norm among children her age? Reason being that many forces are at work that contribute to stripping that sense of wonder from the eyes of babies and children. Parents do it the very first time they permit the baby to be in the room when the television set is on. Studies have shown that babies are anything but unaware, picking up 60-70 percent of what is said and depicted on the screen. Parents all too often fail to realize how little it takes to quench that spark of vibrant life that brings the glow into the eyes. Parents—and how few parents are not guilty of this!—apparently don’t realize what they are doing when they say, “For goodness sake, stop bothering me with your questions—go watch TV!”

And precious little that appears on the television screen elevates the soul of those who watch it. And even if a program is values-worth-living-by-affirming, all too few of the million-plus commercials each of our children is exposed to during their growing-up years, are likely to increase the candle-power of those pure eyes they were born with.

But parents cannot take that sense of wonder for granted. It must be continually reinforced in the family story hour. For children do not internalize abstractions, but rather they internalize whatever values (uplifting or debasing) they hear or see in stories. Since few of the stories they experience on the media are compatible with the sense of wonder they were born with, wise parents realize that it doesn’t take more than seconds or minutes to blight—or even destroy completely—that glow. But if they are introduced to the right kind of stories (the ones they’ll ask for again and again), they will internalize those values. This is the reason Christ never spoke without stories: He created us to internalize them; to grow into them.

One danger, however, must be pointed out: It is all too easy for concerned parents to over-react. To be so over-protective and restrictive that their children either rebel or grow up to be narrow-minded, naive, and incapable of dealing with the complexities of adult life.

It is an awesome responsibility to raise a child.

The Talleyman Ghost and Other Mysteries for Girls

BLOG #33, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE TALLEYMAN GHOST AND OTHER
MYSTERIES FOR GIRLS
August 13, 2014

N E W S    R E L E A S E

Just out is this, our 88th book. In last week’s blog, I discussed with our readers the three-and-a-half-year fuse that led to the eventual publishing of The Talleyman Ghost and The Secrets of Creeping Desert. How it was thanks to Larry Weeden (Editorial Director ) and Bill Flandermeyer (then bookstore manager) at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs that these two books came to be.

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In this case, our discussion that December 3, 1910 evening centered on the individualized book needs for boy-readers and girl-readers. We concluded that both boys and girls love mysteries. After all, generations of young readers have grown up reading The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery stories. Both Weeden and Flandermeyer urged me to consider putting together mystery story collections for both audiences. Finally, three and a half years later, here they are.

I have raided the entire twentieth century for its most memorable girl-related mystery stories. I chose the very best by popular authors whose stories have stood the test of time; not easy given how few stories survive for two generations. A number of the writers were already familiar to me: prolifically published writers such as Catherine R. Britton, May Hurley Ashworth, Albert Payson Terhune (America’s greatest dog story writer), Augusta Huiell Seaman, Eric Philbrook Kelly (renowned writer of stories dealing with Poland and Europe), and Malura T. Weaver.

It is much more difficult today to choose mystery stories that uplift rather than degrade, that help inculcate values worth living by rather than those likely to darken the inner skies of its readers. Not surprisingly, I discovered that most of the best stories had been written earlier on rather than today.

Since far more girls than boys are enthusiastic readers today, I have no fears for the popularity of this collection.

Over the years it has become abundantly clear to me that, generally speaking, book covers are the determining factors in terms of which books are purchased and which are passed over by bookstore browsers. I’ve been lucky with most of our covers; however, two were just plain awful. Not surprisingly, the sales correlate. I’d guess that 95% of impulse book-buying is almost predetermined by the cover illustrations and graphics.

Which brings me to the covers for Talleyman Ghost and Secrets of the Creeping Desert. When Todd Hoyt (president of eChristian/Mission Books) sent us sample cover illustrations for each book, it gave me a brainstorm: quite a few years ago it was when Kiwanis of Conifer members decided to put most all their fund-raising eggs in one basket. Since Kiwanians recite every week this mantra: “Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world one community and one child at a time,” our only question had to do with how we’d focus our energies. We concluded that it had to do with reading. Reason being that for several decades now our national reading test scores have continued their prolonged death-plunge. Reason being: most parents today are themselves non-readers; consequently there are hardly any books, magazines, or newspapers to be seen in their homes. And gone too, for the most part, is the traditional story hour during which parents read to their children. The results add up to a national catastrophe.

Since studies continue to show, conclusively, that if a child fails to fall in love with reading by the third grade—it’s not likely to ever happen at all, we decided to make addressing that need our first priority. Since I’ve directed our Kiwanis Reading Program since its inception, I’ve been deeply involved in helping to make it happen. We’ve raised over $70,000 to buy books for the students (third-graders, highest priority) in five elementary schools: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jeff elementary schools in the Colorado Front Range. Each year, at our annual reading celebration for third-graders, I personally invite all the kids to attend at Ron Lewis’s barn in Marshdale. We give them a great time, including a chance to personally check out Lewis’s buffalo and elk herds, get their faces painted, get to have one of my books (of their choice) inscribed as a gift from me, and be part of the receiving groups when annual checks are handed out (usually $1,500 or so per school). Last two years, since we have a vibrant homeschooling community here in the mountains, we added them in as well.

So, when the subject of choosing covers for these two books came up, I decided to corral Wendy Woodland, principal of West Jeff Elementary School, and ask her if she thought third-graders would get a kick out of helping to choose two book covers before they were published. Woodland loved the idea. “It would be a real first for them!” was her response.

She felt boys would choose a mysterious-looking cover devoid of frills, and implying overt action. But, as for girls, she prophesied that since they tend to recoil from covers that convey graphic violence, much preferring understated covers that, while they appear mysterious and perhaps mystical, lean toward beauty rather than crude or overt action. “And,” she added, “girls love cursive writing more than block writing. Mark my words, they’ll, hands down, choose the mystical green cover with swirly cursive writing.” She was right: the boys gravitated to the one you’ll see on Secrets of Creeping Desert and the girls almost unanimously chose the one that graces Talleyman Ghost. I can’t wait to show the students these covers this fall when they are fourth-graders.

Here are the chosen stories included in the book:

“The Talleyman Ghost,” by Catherine R. Britton
“The Clock Stopped,” by Mae Hurley Ashworth
“Portia and Xenophon,” by Albert Payson Terhune
“That Darling Chin,” by Grace Lyon Benjamin
“Aunt Honoria’s Legacy,” by Helen Minshall Young
“Butterfly Ranch,” by Mary Beth Oliver
“The Mallory Inheritance,” by Augusta Huiell Seaman
“A Royal Mystery – Unsolved,” by Eric Philbrook Kelly
“The Missing Chessman,” by Dorothea Castelhun
“Wings of the Wind,” by Kenneth Payson Kempton
“Buried Treasure,” by Mabel Cleland
“The Ebony Box,” by Malura T. Weaver

Girls of all ages will revel in this timeless collection. As you’re making up your Christmas stocking list, write down the names of your girls, granddaughters, nieces, godchildren, etc., and have me inscribe the books personally to them. Ditto for birthdays or other special occasions.
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ORDERING INFORMATION

Binding: Trade Paper
Pages: 144
Price: $14.98
Shipping: $4.50

Personally signed or inscribed by Joe Wheeler, if requested, at no extra cost. You may secure your copies from us, so give us a call or email or letter, and we’ll fill your order for you,

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.

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.

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!

THE GIFT OF AWARENESS

BLOG #3, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE GIFT OF AWARENESS
January 16, 2013

Only the curious
Have, if they live, a tale
Worth telling at all!
—Alastair Reid

Again and again and again, in recent years, in searching for a place or address, it has happened: The person being asked for information looks at me with a blank three-watt look, and mumbles, “I don’t know where it is” or “Dunno” or “Huh?” It matters not if the place in question is only two or three blocks away!

Which brings me to today’s subject: “The Gift of Awareness.” One of the greatest gifts a parent, teacher, or mentor can bestow on a child or teenager.

Paradoxically, at no time in human history has this much knowledge been accessible, at one’s fingertips; yet at no time in human history has such knowledge been devalued more. Just look around you at the millions who are myopically majoring in minors and minoring in majors, steadily constricting their worlds into knowledge that means virtually nothing: pop culture (celebrities, media, and sports). More likely to be immersed in a meaningless virtual reality world than the real. Boys especially, locked into a Peter Pan existence on their computer keyboards. Both sexes bailing out of growth trajectories in favor of obsessive text-messaging and substance abuse (be it drugs, alcohol, pornography, pop culture, or virtual reality). Result: You walk up to them, ask a question; they look at you with zombyish eyes—there’s nobody home.

So where did we as a society get off the track? Early. The first time we snuff out the God-given sense of wonder each child is born with by responding to questions with, “Oh, stop bothering me! Go watch TV” or “Go play a video game!” “Stop being such a pest!”

Each time this scenario takes place, the child’s light of awareness dims, the inner-wattage is reduced. In time, the result is another walking zombie.

Contrast that tragic result with the flip-side: a child or teen whose questions are enthusiastically fielded. Such lucky people grow up to be an Einstein, a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, an Edison, or Tesla. Or in the humanities, an Emily Dickinson or a Leonardo; a Tolstoy or a Schweitzer; a Dante or a Bronte; a Georgia O’Keefe or a Winslow Homer.

Blessed beyond belief is the child or teen who is mentored by a parent or teacher who is excited about life and growth and becoming. Could it be that the current wave of homeschooling is but the result of teachers and administrators who are devoid of such excitement, who blight their students’ lives by boring them?

What we need is a new concept of achievement: might it not be true that taking the time to ignite the mind of just one child or teen—such as Annie Sullivan so famously did with deaf, dumb, and blind Helen Keller—would by itself be worth having lived?

Beloved, what do you say to our making ourselves a committee of one determined to bestow the gift of awareness to children and teens in our homes, our classrooms, or proximity?