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.

A New Family Classic – “Paddington”

BLOG #3, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
A NEW FAMILY CLASSIC – PADDINGTON
January 21, 2015

The Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2015, D1

The Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2015, D1

Paddington is an oasis of relief in a media world that has clearly lost its ethical and moral moorings. Where in the world are parents going to find family fare in today’s miasma of bone-chilling violence, obscenity-laced humor, sexuality divorced from commitments, anti-God-and-country-agendas, and pornography rapidly gaining acceptance as a new norm? I pity the plight of parents today. And even when parents take their children to see one of those all-too-rare clean films, they fear the pre-film commercials so much many are deliberately walking in late so as to avoid imprinting those chilling or value-eroding images in their children’s brains.

It used to be the parents had many choices in terms of which films they’d take their children to see. No more. Hollywood appears to have all but written off all but its R-rated films. And even Paddington was born in England rather than in Hollywood.

As for reviewers, it has almost become a given that when a G-rated family film does come along, at best film critics damn it with faint praise or scoff at its family values. This is why it was such a shock to read Guy Lodge’s Variety review, “Cinematic update of the lovable literary bear ‘Paddington’ adds action but keeps his spirit” (Denver Post, January 10, 2015), and Joe Morgenstern’s “A Bear to Care About: Paddington Delights” (Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2015): For both were unabashedly positive about the film–no negatives whatsoever!

Morgenstern’s review begins with this sentence: “When you watch a movie that was made mainly for kids and find yourself enjoying it more than most adult fare, at least two explanations suggest themselves: 1. ‘You’re going soft in the head and reverting to childhood pleasures, or 2. The movie is really special.”

Guy Lodge’s review begins with “No bears were harmed in the making of this film,” boast the closing credits of ‘Paddington’ – and happily that promise extends to Michael Bond’s ursine literary creation. Fifty-six years after first appearing in print, the accident-prone Peruvian furball is brought to high tech but thoroughly endearing life in this bright, breezy and oh-so-
British family romp from writer-director Paul King and super-producer David Heyman.” Nor should we forget the prologue set in Peru, (filmed in black and white) and voiced by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton.

Technically, the film blew me away with its seamless portrayal of real people on real location and computer animation. I couldn’t tell where reality ended and digital began! Of course, given that David Heyman cut his teeth on the Harry Potter films, (more recently, Gravity), that technical miracle ought not to surprise anyone.

The Denver Post, January 16, 2015, 6C

The Denver Post, January 16, 2015, 6C

As for my wife and me, we were just enraptured by the story itself. I will admit it took us a little while to get used to the father of the host family, Hugh Bonneville in that role, since we were so used to his dominating presence as the Earl in the Downton Abbey BBC miniseries. Totally unexpected was his metamorphosis from staid stereotypical stiff-upper-lip, don’t-mess-with-tradition, do-it-my-way-because-I-said-so, unromantic father at the beginning, to the young at heart romantic who dares the near impossible to save Paddington, passionately kisses his stunned wife, and vicariously becomes a boy again in order to enter his son’s life for the very first time. His wife, wonderfully played by Sally Hawkins; and children, engagingly played by Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin, are so natural in this most improbable willing suspension of disbelief (accepting as fact a human-acting, talking, and thinking bear), that we accept it all as real-life.

But none of them compare to the miracle of “Paddington,” his endearing personality and ways. Originally, Colin Firth was chosen for the bear’s voice; wisely, Ben Whishaw replaced him, given that his voice was more boyish.

Nor can I forget the virago of the film, the taxidermist Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman) who serves as the Cruella de Vil in the heartstopping scenes when, a la 101 Dalmations, she chases and finally abducts Paddington and almost succeeds in stuffing him for a museum of natural history. Kidman outdoes herself in this most untypical cinematic role for her.

Believe me, so many families thronged the theater that they had to add a second theater to accommodate the crowds. As we listened to the crowd reactions, there were plenty of delighted adult voices to be heard. As for the children–they were ecstatic as they lived the film. Afterwards, leaving the theater, their joy was so great their feet barely touched the floor!

I am hereby making a prediction. Regardless of what awards the film does or does not get, it will go on to become one of the most beloved family films of all time. Not only that, but it is likely to become a series as Michael Bond’s other Paddington books get accessed as well.

The family–in truth, that’s what the film is really about–is really the heart of the film: In the final analysis, just what is a family?

IOWA CAUCUS – REBIRTH? OR ABERRATION?

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

IOWA CAUCUS

REBIRTH?  OR ABERRATION?

 

Dec. 21, 2011

 

As a historian of ideas, I’ve always been fascinated by sudden turning points.  Case in point: During the last year, we’ve seen, one after another, the emergence of democracy all across North Africa and the Middle East.  Even totalitarian Russia now feels the open scorn of its people.

 

In the daily news, we’ve seen Europe reeling from one economic seismic shock after another.  For decades, Europe has been a poster child for a template that appeared to have staying power: one currency for all, fiscal stability, no closed borders between nations, cradle to the grave welfare for all, more than generous retirement benefits, vacations galore (it often seemed that the population of the entire continent could be found on beaches every August), and millions of tourists flooding the continent the icing on the cake.  But no longer: Europe’s template has cracked right down the middle.  And nobody knows how to fix it.

 

In the U.S., things are little better than in Europe.  Only the fact that the spotlight of the world has been fixated on Europe rather than us has enabled us to escape the world’s scrutiny.  But that cannot long last.  Our status quo is unrelentingly grim.

But in Iowa, on the eve of the last debate before the Caucus, something electric happened.  Gingrich may well be right in declaring that we haven’t had anything this substantive in our political arena since the Lincoln-Douglas debates a century and a half ago.  But first, I must admit that, though I’m a registered Republican, I’m a centrist and vote accordingly.  Like most Americans, in recent years I’ve been disillusioned time after time by the G.O.P.  All too often it has seemed as if our Republican leaders were determined to out-dumb each other.  “”Naive’ and “uninformed” way too inadequate to describe their condition, their evident ignorance of current events and national and world history off the charts of probability; their voting out of offices the informed and intelligent moderates who would work together for the good of the country –  instead they elected, all too often, individuals so close-minded they’d stampede the nation off a cliff rather than work together.

However, on Dec. 15, there took place a rational debate between presidential candidates who, for once, did themselves and their party proud.  Same for the moderators.  Such an impact did this make on me that I was unable to sleep afterwards; in fact, at 2:30 a.m. next morning, I got up and wrote until 5:00 a.m.

 

But even now, I find myself incapable of really making sense of all I heard that night.  I’m mightily muddled.  But even so, permit me to muddle through these swirling unconnected thoughts.  Stream-of-consciousness disorganized because I can’t yet make sense of them:

 

It’s like, on the eve of Dec. 15, the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back.  The candidates and the concerned audience fed on each other, together rising to unexpected heights:

 

Rather than merely ramble on unstructured I am bullet-pointing the concerns that generated that eve of Dec. 15:

 

 

  • Government gridlock
  • Out-of-control spending
  • Massive unemployment – worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, for third year in a row
  • Epidemic of bankruptcies
  • Millions of lives shattered by foreclosures and being evicted from their homes.  Almost half owe more than they could get by selling their homes.
  • The middle class shrinking so dramatically that the gap between rich and poor has yawned so wide we risk revolution from the disenfranchised.
  • The collusion between government and Big Banks
  • The breakdown of our protective agencies
  • The federal out-of-control spending taking a terrible toll on the finances, education, social programs, infrastructure, and public services of individual states, resulting in a devastating implosion
  • The revolving door between government and lobbyists
  • Government office being restricted to self-made millionaires or billionaires or those who sell their souls to special interest groups
  • The decline of a literate electorate.  With elections decided by electronic sound-bytes rather than thoughtful reading of newspapers, magazines, and books
  • The political campaigns degenerating into attack ads and character assassination orchestrated by unknown sources or people
  • Vote fraud
  • The staggering economic toll taken by multiple foreign wars
  • Retirees losing all they’d saved for their retirement years
  • Graduates unable to find well-paying jobs
  • Manufacturing continuing to be sent overseas
  • The perceived failure of so many of our schools and colleges
  • The courts becoming ever more hostile to all public expressions of religion or belief in a higher power
  • Marriage discredited by secular forces; so much so that the nuclear family (man, woman, child) is for the first time ceasing to be the norm.  Out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing to such an extent that it is said that one-third of all American children are effectively being raised by their grandparents.  Sexuality today trumps lifetime commitment.
  • A media apparently determined to so ridicule religion and those who attempt to live by biblical principles that they will discredit those people into irrelevancy.
  • Widespread attempts to strip religious holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving of their spiritual significance
  • The replacement of time-honored concepts of Good and Evil and Right and Wrong with psychiatric terminology divorced from a Higher Power.  Result: lying under oath no longer means much to all those who don’t believe in God (however they may perceive Him).  Neither do cheating or stealing seem wrong.
  • Deconstruction of history strips our erstwhile national heroes of whatever noble qualities were once attributed to them.
  • Thoughtful parents so terrified of societal forces hostile to their children (bullying, hazing, pedophilia, rape, substance abuse, sexuality without commitment, ridicule of their beliefs, etc.) that they are pulling their children out of public schools and homeschooling them

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

All these variables swirled around during the memorable two-hour debate (meaningful because moderators asked searching thoughtful questions of the candidates, zeroing in on issues where candidates were perceived to be on thin ice).  Furthermore, moderators permitted candidates to respond and defend their actions and words.  Unlike so many meaningless public debates of recent years, where no real substantive dialogue took place, this debate was very real—indeed it was so gripping I felt it to be high drama!

 

Significantly, the Dec. 15 growing consensus appeared to be: our template is broken beyond repair; it almost has to be rebuilt from the ground up, starting with cutting politicians’ salaries in half, moving back to citizen governance with half-time government service and half time work in the real world.  Frugality once again.  Pay as we go: don’t spend any money we don’t have.  Create jobs rather than parasitically siphoning off the life blood of those who are working hard to create a newer and better society.  Bring God back—, more to the point: bring us back to God.  Respect right to life.  Bring back a society based on the twin bedrocks of God and country.

 

Frankly, I’m less than optimistic that what I felt in the auditorium on Dec. 15 will blossom into a much needed cultural revolution.  For both parties—not just the G.O.P.

 

However, in the darkest days of history, God has summoned great men and women to selfless service—Moses, Daniel, St. Paul, St. Nicholas, St. Francis, Luther, the Wesleys, Washington, Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Churchill, Mother Teresa.

 

Why could not God do it again?