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.

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THE “NEW” LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA

BLOG #32, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE “NEW” LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA
August 12, 2015

It was clear back on June 26, 2013, at the tail end of our second National Park Series, that I annointed Highway 50’s seemingly almost empty stretches of mostly straight highway, stretching from Fallon, Nevada to Holden, Utah as America’s loneliest highway. I never thought I’d ever find one to rival it—much less upstage it. But I have. And we were blindsided by its existence. Not the road itself, but its loneliness.

So fast-paced is this life that we live that we rarely take long road trips any more: it’s much easier and faster to fly. But every once in a while we get nostalgic for auto-travel (not interstates but rural roads).

Early in July, we decided to put together a 2200-mile tangent, beginning in Conifer, Colorado, then angling south on I-25 to Raton, NM; angling SE to Amarillo, Texas; then south on I-27 to Lubbock; then angling SE on all kinds of country roads to Austin; then SW on I-35 to San Antonio. We hadn’t ever driven on the back roads between Lubbock and Austin; indeed, we hadn’t driven south of Fort Worth in over thirty years.

My what changes we noticed! First of all, instead of everything being July-brown it was the greenest green we’d ever seen in Texas in July. Reason being the nonstop rainstorms that just wouldn’t quit. And even Texas backroads were generally in fine condition with 75 mph speed-limits being the norm. And what a difference population-wise! I’d heard, of course, about the continually increasing population in Texas, but it was jolting to see how tiny hamlets were now towns, towns were now cities, and cities—well, just take Austin for example. Austin is a city that is growing so fast city-planners have all but lost control. It was one vast traffic jam while we were there—even on I-35. Locals we spoke with confirmed that sometimes it takes them up to four hours just to get from one end to the other! The other big change we noticed was that on ridge after ridge after ridge, as far as the eye could see, virtual forests of white wind-turbines. Connie and I agreed that these days—at least in West Texas—wind-millionaires must be rivaling oil-millionaires.

But then, after seeing how it was almost all city now between Austin and San Antonio, it was time to head home. Not having any desire to re-experience I-35 traffic again, we decided to explore a route we’d never tried before. Perhaps it would be a bit more serene. Little did we know!

Our chosen route was Highway 90 west through Hondo and Uvalde to the border-town of Del Rio. This is wide-open country with relatively few habitations. Only Del Rio of any size at all, no small thanks to being home to Laughlin Air Force Base and the vast Amistad Reservoir. Though I’d heard about Amistad it was something else to actually experience it! It took us well over an hour NW of it to get past it. About the only vehicles we’d see would be Border Patrol vehicles. Another epiphany was that the Rio Grande River is part of the Amistad Reservoir. Yet another was the discovery that the Rio Grande is America’s fifth-longest river (1885 miles long). It is born in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, meanders south through Colorado and New Mexico, then forms the entire 1240-mile border between Texas and Mexico. What a road-trip following the Rio Grande from its source to the Gulf of Mexico would be. Ah! As Lucy Earp would say: “A blessing for another time!” Believe me, I now realize what a daunting challenge it is for Texas governors to police 1240 miles of the river border with Mexico!

Though it was already a lonely road en route to Del Rio, it really became lonely once we left Del Rio. We stayed on Hwy. 90 until we reached Sanderson, then turned NW on the southern terminus of 285 [Denver is its northern terminus]. Then it was on through small towns such as Fort Stockton and Pecos in Texas; and Carlsbad and Roswell en route to Santa Fe, and it is otherwise almost entirely devoid of human habitations. Not until we reached the outskirts of Santa Fe did we get back into much cell-phone coverage.

It so happened that we had to drive through a very large storm front, driven by fierce winds and characterized by one huge purplish-black thunderhead after another. I don’t believe I’ve ever, in my entire life, experienced such dramatic constantly changing sky paintings. It was often difficult to stay on the road, thanks to extremely strong side-winds and torrential rain. But it was grand to experience!

North of Santa Fe, it was a little lonely, but not nearly as much as between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

So, if you ever want to get away from it all in the lower 48 states, I wholeheartedly recommend you take 90/285 from San Antonio to Santa Fe!

Try it!

GOING BLIND

BLOG #50, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
GOING BLIND
December 10, 2014

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My wife and I often travel on Southwest Airlines; whenever we do so, I like to peruse their in-flight magazine, Spirit. The cover story in the July 2014 issue was titled “As the Lights Go Down.”

Nicole Kear begins her gripping story with these riveting words: “The day I found out I was going blind started out like any other.” She was nineteen years old, a sophomore at Yale, undecided as to whether to major in English or in theater.

A routine appointment with her doctor turned out to be anything but! The eye-specialist shattered her dreams by announcing that she had a degenerative retinal disease called “retinitis pigmentosa.” My retinal cells were slowly dying which would result in gradual vision loss. First the disease would eat away at my night and peripheral vision, and eventually it would claim my central vision too…. It was untreatable and incurable.

As she walked the twenty blocks back to her home, she was overcome by wave after wave of fear: “But more than anything, I felt instant and irrevocable loss, like a kid who’s just lost her grip on a helium balloon. I made a grab for it, fast, but it was too late, and I watched helplessly as it receded, further and further out of reach.”

As time passed, she felt for a time that she’d be crushed under the strain of knowing that darkness was inevitable. “But something else was happening, too. Through the fog of my shock and confusion, I started seeing everything with the eyes of someone looking for the last time. Sights I’d always taken for granted–the bits of sparkle in the pavement, the bright, brilliant red of the streetlight–seemed immensely, heart-breakingly beautiful. I’d wasted so much time, I scolded myself, being blind to the beauty around me. Knowing it wouldn’t last forever, I became ravenous for images.”

So how was she to face it?

“Though I couldn’t control my disease or the blindness it could bring, I could control how I responded to it…. In the time I had left, I could stuff my brain with images in hopes they’d be enough to last a lifetime. I could use the death sentence my eyes had been given as a kick in the pants to start really living.”

Time passed. One afternoon, she sat down with her leather-bound journal and drew up a personal bucket list of things she wanted to see and do before her vision gave out. She called it her carpe diem campaign.

She double-majored in English and theater, learned how to be a circus clown, learned how to master the flying trapeze, and traveled to Europe. In Rome, “I sat in front of the Pantheon, drinking in every column, every chiseled Latin letter, sketching these details in my journal in an effort to permanently imprint them on my memory.” She picked sweet-peas on a farm in North Italy, hiked cloud-capped mountains to see where Ovid had lived, watched men on Vespas smoking cigarettes and women gossiping while leaning out of windows, and smelled the sweet aroma of marinara sauce simmering on stovetops. “Spending all the money I’d saved from birthdays and graduations, I bought a Eurorail pass and set off with my sister to Paris, where we watched Grand Guignol puppet shows, and Amsterdam, where we stood by narrow canals eating wheels of black licorice. I witnessed the sunrise over Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, and I felt near to bursting with awe at the beauty and the grandeur.”

After college, she moved back to New York, where she performed Shakespeare in the lower East Side, 1950s cult classics in the West Village, and avant-garde German theater on St. Mark’s Place.

She fell in love several times–but finally the real thing: David proposed to her in the middle of the Smoky Mountains.

Next came Hollywood: “I was an actor, after all, and in L.A. the streets were paved with TV pilots. David and I quit our day jobs as long-term temps at an investment bank, packed our stuff, and ventured west. I was bowled over by California’s beauty. Rolling, golden hills that looked like sleeping lions. Jagged cliffs with precipitous drops to the churning, foaming Pacific Ocean. Even the light was different, and the smells. Every time I walked out my front door and inhaled the scent of jasmine, I stopped to marvel . . . sniffing jasmine blossoms made me feel like a Disney princess.”

Driving became more and more difficult. She’d become totally night-blind. As her field of vision continued to shrink, she bumped into things more and more, and fell down stairs–and fumbled her stage-lines.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. But now, color-blindness was setting in, and her depth-perception was going too. Even so, She and David decided to go ahead with it. “When my son made his entrance, just after midnight on Thanksgiving Night, I soaked in so many sights: his strong chin, bee-stung eyes, the complex curvature of his ear, so tiny it made my heart ache with tenderness…. Two years later I saw my daughter for the first time, a ruddy, round-cheeked newborn sporting a Mohawk.” There were details she couldn’t see, but she didn’t worry about that.

By the time she was 34, she was deemed legally blind. She could no longer read regular print. Even so, she decided to have another baby. “My third baby is now 2 years old, and I’ve been able to read her books (if the text is big enough), take her to the playground (if it’s enclosed), and watch her blow out her birthday candles.”

Nicole Kear concludes her remarkable story with these poignant words: “But I’ve learned not to peer too anxiously into the future. Hindsight may be 20/20, but what’s to come is too murky for any of us to make out. My eyes are so dim that I need to train them on the present, to soak up as much as I can, to slow it down, to make it last. As much as I can, I stop to smell the roses–and while I’m there, I look at them, long and hard. Those blazing red streetlights. The way the skin on the top of my children’s noses wrinkles when they smile. . . I don’t know the kind of life I might have had or the kind of woman I might have become if that appointment 18 years ago had actually been routine. . . . What I do know is the life I have is nothing like what I expected, but it is everything I wanted–full of beauty, love, and a light beyond anything the eye can see.”

Nicole Kear is the author of the new memoir, Now I See You.

* * * * *

Four months after reading this, on a 55th anniversary cruise from San Diego through the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale, my eyes became progressively more difficult to keep open, and the pain increased continuously. In Fort Lauderdale, our son rushed me to an eye specialist.

I can now see again, but it has resulted in a profoundly greater appreciation for the daily miracle of sight.

I conclude with this quotation penned by Harry Moyle Tippett:

Out of a world of total silence and darkness Helen Keller found a way to a world of light and holy purpose. In the top floor bedroom at Forest Hills . . . there were eight windows looking out into a vast expanse of blue sky by day and of star-studded velvet by night. Small strings guided her steps to the sanctuary, and there she reveled in an inner illumination that matched the glorious light of day she could not see and the silver sheen of stars she could only feel. She said, ‘I learned that it is possible for us to create light and sound and order within us, no matter what calamity may befall us in the outer world.’

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

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

November 5, 2014

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

Cezanne’s home in Aix en Provence

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

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

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

Here is the itinerary:

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

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

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

He wrote,

“Dear Grammy and Poppy,

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

Love, Seth”

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

_MG_5500St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seth’s journal commentary was uniquely Seth-ish:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_MG_6098Our Sticker Boy!

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

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

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

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

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

4. Venice. Especially the late afternoon gondola ride.

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

6. Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

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

8. Pisa and Florence.

9. Beaches of Mykonos

10. Aix en Provence.

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

* * * * *

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

Photos by Greg Wheeler.

MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN – PART 3 -TAYLOR’S 2011 REWARD

BLOG #43, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART THREE
TAYLOR’S 2011 REWARD

October 22, 2014

At the front of Taylor’s journal, I had written in:

“The world is a great book—
and those who do not travel
have read only one page.”
—St. Augustine

In a way, Taylor’s cruise was a trial-run for Seth’s three years later, for Taylor’s re-introduced us to the minds, habits, and speech of a thirteen-year-old. I’d forgotten, for instance, how short a time instructions remain in their mental silos, and how constantly those instructions have to be reinforced. For I should have remembered from Charles Schultz’s immortal Charlie Brown movies how adult talk is received in their minds as so much “wah wah wah.” I mistakenly assumed that once I had thoroughly planted in Taylor’s mind the necessity of writing in his journal each day, he’d faithfully remember. Hardeeharharhar! Three years later, when I scrutinized his journal for the first time, I ruefully discovered that he quit after only five days! Even though I reminded him to write in it several times during the cruise. Of course, when even college freshmen have to be constantly reminded of such things, it was stupid of me to assume thirteen-year-olds would be any different…. Only belatedly did we realize we had taken so many photos of places we visited that we failed to realize how few of them featured Taylor himself!

_MG_0120  Visiting one of Gaudi’s Architectural Wonders  in Barcelona.

 

* * * * *

Finally, the big day arrived. By mastering the geography of the world, during the twelfth year of his life, Taylor had earned his personal dream Mediterranean cruise. But for us, the proverbial moment of truth had arrived. Connie and I now had a duly signed and witnessed power of attorney to be solely responsible for Taylor’s life during the two weeks he was with us. Such a responsibility is more than a little daunting. Much more so than having one’s grandson with us in the United States where most people speak English. For should he get lost in a foreign country, where the native language is not English, in great cities, often teeming with millions of people, and streets and byways our grandson has never seen before—what would we do? More frustrating yet, what would he do? What if some unscrupulous person should lure him away—and we’d never see him again? How could we ever have faced his parents with this perceived dereliction of our duty?

Since our son Greg, an advertising copywriter from Fort Lauderdale, would be with us, and would, from time to time, have Taylor alone with him, what if he’d be lost then?

That this is no light problem, let me share with you one of the scariest moments of the entire trip that took place at Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. Millions of people live in Barcelona, and over 25,000,000 people from all over the world come here each year to see this almost mythical church [it’s not an operational cathedral] over a century in the making. It takes hours just to get inside its gates. Well, while inside, Greg and Taylor went shutterbugging in a different direction than Connie and I did. When I circled back and found Greg, Taylor was nowhere to be seen! Had this been San Francisco, Dallas or New York, I wouldn’t have been nearly as apprehensive. Initially, I assumed I’d find him quickly; when I failed to do so, each additional minute—each seeming like years!—that passed, my stress level skyrocketed. Here, there, inside the teeming edifice, I raced, then outside, but inside the gates, and everywhere masses of people—and no Taylor. I think I must have aged years during the mere minutes it took to find him, nonchalantly taking pictures. Oh the unutterable relief! And, at this juncture, the trip had not even started yet!

At the Monastery at Montserrat.  _MG_0358

Later on, I thought of the parallel in Holy Writ, when twelve-year-old Jesus was lost in the great metropolis of Jerusalem—and his frantic parents searched three interminable days before finding him.

With that preamble, let me back up a couple of days.

ALMOST MISSING OUR PLANE

Up until this day of departure, we’d kept Greg’s joining us on the cruise a secret. Taylor had not even an inkling that his beloved uncle would be sharing the two weeks with us.

On July 27, we were scheduled to pick up Taylor in Annapolis, fly out of Baltimore to Philadelphia, where we’d change airlines and meet Greg at the gate of departure. That was the schedule; the reality proved far different! The reality was that not one, but two Baltimore to Philadelphia planes proved defective, thus placing our connecting flight to Spain in jeopardy.

We, along with some other travelers in a similar plight, were rushed to our already checked-in luggage, then rushed to a waiting van, then a veritable Jehu of a driver risked traffic tickets by racing down the freeway to the Philadelphia airport. Surreptitiously, Connie texted Greg so that he and the gate attendants could keep track of our whereabouts and likely (if no traffic slowdown) projected time of arrival. With bare minutes to spare, we reached the vast Philadelphia terminal and were propelled post-haste through security. We just made it! And the look of disbelief on Taylor’s face when he saw his Uncle Greg waiting for us in line was absolutely priceless! Worth every minute, week, and month of subterfuge it took to pull it off.

We were next crammed into an oversized US Air jet like so many tightly-packed sardines. Very little sleep for any of us during the long trans-Atlantic flight.

On July 28, we arrived in Barcelona, checked in at the Regina Hotel and, because we could not get in our rooms until afternoon, we took our pre-arranged bus trip to the mountaintop monastery of Montserrat. Believe me, when we returned from this jaunt, we found something to eat and we went to bed early, trying to catch up on the missing night’s sleep plus the missing eight hours on the clock.

Following is our itinerary:

July 30 – We board Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas and sail out to sea.
July 31 – Nice, French Riviera, Monaco
August 1 – Livorno, Pisa, Florence
August 2 – Citaveccia and Rome
August 3 – Salerno, Pompeii, Amalfi Coast
August 4 – At Sea
August 5 , 6 – Venice
August 7 – Split (Croatia)
August 8 – Dubrovnik
August 9, 10 – At Sea
August 11 – We dock at Barcelona
August 12 – We board our plane and arrive in Philadelphia in the afternoon.

* * * * *

It is fascinating to see the world (in his journal entries) from the eyes of a thirteen-year-old!

July 30 – “We were caught in a huge storm. It thundered, hailed, and blew a couple of chairs off the boat. That was real cooooool! Then one of the staff let us inside or made us go inside.”

July 31 – “This morning we arrived at Nice. It was cool. We had to get up early though. Dang! We have to get up even earlier tomorrow. When we got to Nice we had to take a tender to shore. It was pretty cool but we didn’t sit up top which would have been even cooler.

“Our tour guide took us to a place called Eze! It was really cool, there was an amazing view and there was this castle, church, or whatever. I think it also could of been a house and a hotel. Maybe all of the above.

August 1 – “Today, we arrived at Florence. We went to Pisa and got a few pictures but the thing that sticks out the most was our guides. Especially Dilleetta! Aghaa! She didn’t tell us anything and she wouldn’t shut up. She would be like the sky is light blue which is a light blue but it isn’t quite blue, it’s kinda light or white but not quite. It’s a blue or a medium blue with white. But it’s not a dark blue white. Then it would be too dark blue. When we first got to Florence she took us to a leather shop for an HOUR. She said it was free time. G R R R R! . . . . We eventually go to Pisa and did all that and having Poppy running away.”

_MG_0818

 Visiting the Colosseum in Rome

My face is still red from that Pisa experience. I had drummed this message [to stay together at all times—and never to separate one’self from the group] again and again into everyone’s head—except, obviously, my own. At Pisa, inexcusably, I wandered off, taking pictures. Some time later, when they were getting extremely apprehensive—had I experienced a heart attack or stroke? —, we found each other. Boy, did I ever get a verbal thrashing! Taylor will probably chortle about the difference between Poppy’s talk and Poppy’s walk until the day he dies!

* * *

A little while after we returned, I asked Taylor if the cruise had made any difference in his life.
A far-away look came into his eyes, then he said, “The world seems so much bigger now.”

His parents tell us, “Ever since his cruise, it’s clear Taylor has been badly bitten by the travel bug.”

In retrospect, when asked to come up with his ten favorite places or experiences, in order of preference, this is what he wrote:

1. The Amalfi Coast [he was overwhelmed by the corkscrew road leading down through mist to the incredibly deep blue sea below].
2. Venice.
3. Monaco [he especially reveled in seeing the exotic Lamborghinis, Bugattis, Rolls Royces, Bentleys, etc.].
4. Eze. [An ancient hilltop village in France].
5. Strawberry virgin daiquiris [his favorite pool-side liquid extravagance].
6. Soft-serve ice -cream machine [no small thanks to near constant visits to it, he gained over five pounds during the cruise].
7. La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
8. Food! All the different food at all the different stops.
9. The storm [as we were leaving Barcelona and heading out to sea, a terrific Mediterranean storm blew out of nowhere, blowing deck chairs, people, and everything not nailed down, hither and thither. Taylor enjoyed most the sheer violence of it; got out in the open so he could take the full brunt of it. The authorities were not amused; they unceremoniously pushed him back under cover].
10. Dubrovnik

Next week, we’ll break from Grandparenting in order to get to Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month October selection. We’ll get back to Seth’s 2014 story on November 5.

Photos by Greg Wheeler.

Making memories with Grandchildren – Part 2 – Master the Geography of the World Before You are 13

BLOG #42, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART TWO
MASTER THE GEOGRAPHY OF THE WORLD
BEFORE YOU ARE THIRTEEN

October 15, 2014

The years flowed swiftly by, as years have a way of doing. I married Connie, the golden-haired love of my life; over time, we were blessed with two children: Greg and Michelle. Michelle grew up and married Duane Culmore. Two sons were born to them: Taylor and Seth (three years apart).

In today’s society, all too few intergenerational families live close to each other. Sadly, the same is true with us: our grandchildren are half a continent away from us. So we see them all too seldom. But there are no easy answers for what to do about it. In our case, Connie’s folks moved half way across the country to live near us, in Texas. Some years later, we moved away and left them there. One has to go where the jobs are.

So how could we spend quality time alone with our grandsons? Some years ago an idea came to me, born of Grandpa Leininger’s love of National Geographic maps and from my own fascination with geography and travel. We shared it with Michelle and Duane first, then with Taylor and Seth while they were still young.

Here is how we phrased it: “If you master the geography of the world before your thirteenth birthday, Poppy and Grammy will take you anywhere in the world you’d like to go.”

Well, the years rolled along and Taylor reached eleven. No apparent interest in the challenge. We began to breathe easier: there would not be big-time draining of our bank account after all. About a year later, just before Taylor’s twelfth birthday, our daughter Michelle phoned us with the news that Taylor was seriously interested in holding us to our promise. “So, Dad, how will it work? What are the requirements? We’ve only twelve months left, and Taylor will have to fit it in against school, sports, music, etc.”

I told her he’d have to know all the countries of the world, capital cities, major cities, mountain ranges, major rivers and lakes, deserts, and islands; also oceans, seas, bays, gulfs—and any unusual geographic features. She would have to be the hands-on instructor and pre-tester; only when he was ready with a country or region would Taylor phone me and the three of us would test him on it together.

And so it began. At first we waited until he’d mastered entire regions; but that proved too difficult to retain in his head, so gradually we reduced the testing areas to a more humane level. Because of his many other involvements, and Michelle’s and mine, it proved to be a long, slow process. Michelle became the taskmaster on that end. The U.S. and Canada (states and provinces too) proved relatively easy since Taylor already knew a lot about them. But after that, it got harder. Harder yet when we tackled European, Asian, and African areas of the world.

Once in a while Taylor would pleasantly surprise me: learning more about a country or region than I required of him. Michelle and Duane reported in to us that Taylor had already experienced a serendipity: when his history teacher referred to a certain Latin American country, Taylor was the only one who knew where it was. More and more, during class discussions, Taylor’s would be the lone-hand raised.

Another problem now surfaced: If Taylor didn’t master the geography of the entire world before his thirteenth birthday, he’d forfeit the promised reward. However, in order to get good booking rates, we couldn’t afford to wait. Yet another problem came in tandem: If he didn’t yet know the world, how could he then choose where he most wanted to go? We finally concluded that we’d need to rephrase the original question so it now read: “Where are three places in the world you’d like to see?” and we would select one of them and book it. Which resulted in yet another problem: Because of Taylor’s busy summer sports program, the available time-frame before school re-started provided us with only a small window of time.

One of his possible choices had to do with the South Pacific, but the time frame and distance to get there and back precluded our booking a destination there. Another two choices: central Italy and Venice worked better. So we booked a 12-day Mediterranean cruise that would feature both locales. But we didn’t tell Taylor because until and if he completed the challenge, we could still cancel the booking. To take him on the cruise without his completing the task would be a travesty and set a terrible life-precedent for him.

Meanwhile the remaining time interval was shrinking alarmingly and his progress towards his goal proved erratic. Our daughter knew she could push him only so far and so fast.

And something totally unexpected had come up: our son Greg had decided he wanted to go along! Many years earlier, when he was about Taylor’s age, I had mandated that he master the world’s geography, promising only to give him a nice reward when he finished. Well, he did complete it, and his munificent reward was only a train trip from Fort Worth to Cleburne, Texas—all of forty miles! Unbeknownst to us, Greg had been sulking about this ever since—and to add insult to injury, here we were promising a European cruise to his nephew for the same task! So, we now added Greg to our already full room in our cruise booking. But we didn’t tell Taylor for Greg wanted it to be a surprise. Naturally, we had to keep Michelle and Duane up to date—and that was tough given all the secrets involved.

The last month came, then three weeks, two weeks, and then there was only one week left—and still Taylor was not done. Needless to say, there was a lot of tension for all of us. Finally, only hours away from his birthday—Taylor tested out on the last piece in the jigsaw-puzzle of the world.

At last, we could send him a journal for him to write in during the cruise which we could now detail for him.

* * * * *

Next week: Taylor’s reward.

Making Memories with Grandchildren – Part 1 – A Grandfather Who Never Got Old

BLOG #41, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART ONE
A GRANDFATHER WHO NEVER GOT OLD

October 8, 2014

Many years ago, I was privileged to spend my eighth-grade year with my maternal grandparents in Arcata, California. That one year proved to be pivotal in my own life journey. Pivotal because my grandfather, Herbert Norton Leininger, was a Renaissance man whose passion was truly global: encompassing everything that was going on in the world. Tacked to the walls of the entire second-floor living areas were National Geographic maps, so that Grandpa could keep track of everything that was happening in the world, and the people who made them happen.

Never can I forget Leininger Christmases, when all six daughters and their husbands and families, one by one, arrived and gradually overflowed the big rambling three-story home. Once assigned quarters, everyone gravitated to the second floor where the action was. We kids were tremendously impressed by how little time it took for Grandpa to subjugate these authority figures, our fathers. Grandpa gave hem no time in which to claim any turf for themselves, but instantaneously dominated his second-story stage, vigorously showing his cowed sons-in-law where world events were taking place, lashing out at world leaders who failed to live up to Grandpa’s high and rigid expectations, and occasionally praising the few who passed muster. All the while like a stage actor, he’d vigorously stride back and forth from map to map.

Periodically, Grandpa, with an impish look in his eyes, would glance around to see if those guardians of our morals—his daughters—were listening, then launch into the opening lines of what many in that semi-Victorian Age considered rather “naughty”: Rudyard Kipling’s “And I Learned About Women from Her.” At least that’s what we kids thought it was called, because of that recurring line in each stanza.. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the poem is simply titled The Ladies.” In it, the persona, obviously—to our mothers at least—a womanizer in then British-run India and Burma. The opening lines run thus:

“I’ve taken my fun where I’ve found it;
I’ve rogued an I’ve ranged in my time;
I’ve ‘ad my pickin’ of sweethearts,
An’ four o’ the lot was prime.
One was an ‘arf-caste widow,
One was a woman at Prome,
One was the wife of a jemadan-sais [head-groom]
An’ one is a girl at ‘ome.”

In essence, in this poem, Grandpa was teaching his grandchildren about the birds and the bees—specifically this fascinating creature we call “woman.” Each stanza having to do with a specific woman the persona in the poem had learned from. But long before Grandpa reached concluding stanzas such as this:

“I’ve taken my fun where I’ve found it,
An’ now I must pay for my fun,
For the more you ‘ave known o’ the others
The less you will settle to one;
An’ the end of it’s sittin’ and thinkin’,
An’ dreamin’ Hell-fires to see;
So be warned by my lot (which I know you will not),
An’ learn about women from me!”

Yes, long before his daughters had vainly attempted to quench the orator, we kids—perhaps because our mothers were so upset with their father—were inwardly enthralled that we’d been permitted to listen to such a wicked poem. Not that we understood why it was supposedly wicked: it was enough that our mothers thought it was.

Grandma Josephine, who’d long ago learned that when the Lord of the Manor was on a roll, he never stopped for breath (for, perish the though, that momentary pause might enable one of his squirming sons-in-law to launch a contrary opinion), consequently, Grandma immediately took the stage in a much quieter manner) with her daughters, discussing family personalities, foibles, idiosyncracies, etc., and the daughters giving as much as they took, there was much laughter.

We kids sat enthralled on the floor taking in both tracks. The experience reminds me of certain contemporary TV interviewers who continually interrupt their interviewees who attempt to answer their hosts’ questions; and when these interviewees interrupt other discussion participants—all these individuals talking at once—, the hubbub is indescribable. In retrospect, I’m convinced that those holiday gatherings were one-of-a-kind. The age of large cohesive families, print-driven education, patriarchal family structure, and children-are-to-be-seen-and-not-heard [we were the last such generation], is no more—and will never come again.

Then, one by one, each car-load would disappear to much hugging, kissing, and waving, each one leaving the house lonelier. And, before long, it would be just us left. Early next morning, religiously at six o’clock, I’d hear the sonorous radio voice of Gabriel Heater (with a fair amount of static) downstairs, and know that Grandpa was once again setting his inner sails for the day.

Only in retrospect do I realize the impact of that one year with my maternal grandparents. How Grandpa’s persona seeped into my own goals and philosophy of life. Nor can I forget Grandpa’s late-life soaring. When he reached the age of 75, he announced that for 50 years he’d pleased the world and his wife—now he was going to please himself. He purchased a snazzy Lincoln hardtop, grew a goatee, and, with the help of a fellow conspirator we knew only as Mr. Smith, he constructed the first camper I ever remember seeing: such a long body grafted on to a Studebaker truck that it was a miracle the front wheels didn’t lift off the ground! Grandpa then found enough bargain paint—the most hideously ugly shade of pea-green I’ve ever seen—to complete the job; loaded it with supplies and grub, and headed north. Only when they reached the last road separating them from the North Pole did they turn around.

When they returned, they didn’t stay long, but headed south into the jungles of Mexico.

But even that wasn’t enough: Grandpa next announced that he was going to explore all of California’s western rivers from their headwaters to the sea. Never can I forget one of those expeditions: the day I joined family members waiting for Grandpa’s outboard-driven rubber raft to round the bend; sometime later that day, here he came; veered in to shore, bequeathed his garbage to us, noblesse obligedly accepted our grocery contributions, restarted the outboard, and he was once again heading down-river. A jaunty last wave—and he disappeared from sight.

Nor can I forget the times he regaled us with Shakespeare—especially Hamlet, which he knew by heart. He was Prince Hamlet when he treaded the attic boards of his house.

His was the only funeral I can remember where all the “mourners” could do was laugh. In my eulogy, I did my best to recreate his unique persona.

* * * * *

Next week I’ll continue this series of blogs about this thing called grandparenting.

Barely Begun at Seventy – How to Never Get Old – Conclusion

BLOG #30, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY
HOW TO NEVER GET OLD
Conclusion
July 23, 2014

“Youth is not a time of life…. It is a state of mind. It is not a matter of ripe cheeks, red lips and supple knees. It is a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is a freshness in the deep springs of life.

Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over love of ease. This often exists in the man of 50 more than the boy of 20.

Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years wrinkle the skin, but self-distrust, fear and despair–those are the long, long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust.

You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.

In the central part of your heart there is a wireless station. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage, grandeur and power from the earth, from man and from the infinite, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and the central part of your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then you are grown old indeed and may God have mercy on your soul.”

–Author Unknown. Quoted in Josephine Lowman’s column in the
Nov. 10, 1980 Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

If you do a lot of people-watching like authors such as I do, it won’t take long for you to discover that children and teenagers tend to congregate around two groups of people: their age group and old people who never grow old. You can’t possibly miss the latter. You feel their force field the instant they come into the room. They radiate joy and vibrant energy. They’re not at all interested in either themselves or what you might think of them–but rather they are fascinated by everyone in their vicinity. They yearn to hear each one’s life story. They do not grandstand; indeed, they listen more than they talk. When they leave the room it’s like the lights were suddenly dimmed to a fraction of what they were before they came in.

They have a Falstaffian exuberance of life. My maternal grandfather (Herbert Norton Leininger) was a tornado of a man. I was privileged to live my eighth grade year with him and Grandmother Josephine. Early each morning I’d hear the sonorous voice of Gabriel Heater on the radio, setting Grandpa’s sails for the day. The walls were papered with National Geographic maps. The house was like a central command war room, and Grandpa was the Five Star General who knew everything that was going on in the world–and what to do about it. Furthermore, he knew who was responsible. If he felt any particular leader was falling down on the job, he’d sit down at his trusty manual typewriter and tell the offending person how to mend his or her ways. Not in generalities–but in specifics. When the six daughters would come home for Christmas, he’d corral his six sons-in-law and show and tell them what was happening in the world. But he wasn’t at all interested in their opinions–he was the alpha male, and never for a moment let them forget it!

Grandma had learned years before that if she waited to get into the conversational sound-track until the lord of the manor paused for breath, she’d never get in at all because when he was on a roll, Grandpa never did pause for breath. So Grandma wisely (amazingly, she was an early modern in this respect) just talked simultaneously–usually about family, people, gossip, personal things; and the daughters were full participants–and there was much laughter. We kids loved the two sound-tracks, and listened to them both. Especially we reveled in seeing those authority figures (our fathers) squelched by their fierce father-in-law.

Grandpa loved literature–could quote and perform Shakespeare by the hour. Apparently, he knew Hamlet by heart; and would tread the boards like a professional when he could round up a captive audience. When he was 75, he announced that for fifty years he’d pleased his wife and the world by being clean-shaven; now, he was going to please himself. He grew a distinguished goatee, purchased a natty Lincoln hardtop; constructed the first camper we’d ever seen; he and a luckless co-conspirator we knew only as Mr. Smith, painted it the ugliest green I’ve seen in my lifetime, packed it with grub and they journeyed north to the North Pole.

When they returned, before we knew it, they’d headed south into the jungles of Mexico. In his eighties, he announced he was going to find the headwaters of each of California’s major rivers and ride down them in a rubber raft. Never can I forget one day when I was invited to join other descendants who’d dutifully brought the requisitioned grub to the appointed spot on the riverside. After quite a wait, we heard the put-put of an outboard motor, Grandpa veered in to the bank, unloaded what he wanted to get rid of, bequeathing it to us; then, with inimitable noblesse oblige, accepted our tribute, loaded the grub, restarted the motor, headed out to mid-river, and with a jaunty wave, disappeared from view.

On the day of his death, he and his Lincoln were roaring through the Oregon countryside, wiping out mailboxes right and left, as though he was Don Quixote and they were enemy windmills.

His was the only funeral I’ve ever attended where all the “mourners” did was laugh.

* * * * *

So, beloved . . . , you don’t have to ever get old at all. My Great Aunt Lois, at the age of 104, still firmly up to date on the Zeitgeist, was asked, “Aunt Lois, how old do you have to be before you are old?” Without a minute’s hesitation, she shot back, “Old is anyone who is fifteen years older than you are.”

Those who never grow old remain passionately in love with every aspect of life. They are voracious readers and indefatigable travelers. The days are never long enough for all they want to learn and do. Yet in all their continual growth, they continuously watch out for opportunities to help those who need what they’re capable of providing–they are known far and wide for paying it forward. They revel in children and young people, never more joyous than when in the midst of them. Because of all this, they find no time in which to get old. Most likely, death will have to really huff and puff just to trip them up at last. When their race is stopped, funerals are never held for them–only celebrations.

My own beloved mother was just as much in love with life as was her father; she differed from him mainly in that she spent her lifetime ministering to the needs of others. His center of gravity was closer home.

I’ve dedicated 13 of my 86 books to my mother, for she was my lodestar. Possessed of a near photographic memory, she’d memorized thousands of pages of short stories, poetry, and readings. And never slowed down until faced with the cruelest enemy of all, Dementia.

In one of my books, Tears of Joy for Mothers, my introduction is titled, “My Mother’s Scrapbooks,” and it consists of my mother’s favorite poems of the home, of life itself. It is fitting that I close this three-part blog series with the poem she first recited when she won a high school elocutionary contest with it. Later on, it was while hearing her recite it that my father fell in love with her. Late in life, in the “From the Cradle to the Grave” programs she and my father put on, she’d close the program with the one poem that summed up her passion for life: Amelia Burr’s “A Song of Living.”

“Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.
I have sent up gladness on wings to be lost in the blue of the sky,
I have run and leaped with the rain, I have taken the wind to my breast.
My cheek like a drowsy child to the face of the earth I have pressed.
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I have kissed young love on the lips. I have heard his song to the end
I have struck my hand like a seal, in the loyal hand of a friend.
I have known the peace of Heaven, the comfort of work done well.
I have longed for death in the darkness and risen alive out of hell.
Because I have loved life, I have no sorrow to die.

I give a share of my soul to the world where my course is run.
I know that another shall finish the task that I leave undone.
I know that no flower, no flint, was in vain on the path I trod.
As one looks on a face through a window, through life, I have looked on God.
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.”

Barely Begun at Seventy – Part Two

BLOG #29, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY – Part Two
July 16, 2014

Most Americans still act as though they inwardly believe they are living under the old template: productive vibrant goal-driven life ends at age 65. Most likely they don’t articulate this in mere words–indeed, they don’t have to: their actions confirm that they are living under the old template.

Some years ago, during a period when I directed an Adult Degree Program in Texas, I realized that there was little correlation between teaching college students and teaching adult students. Since our program included an incredibly wide age-span (students in their twenties all the way to students in their eighties), I was forced to reinvent my inner concept of what teaching was all about. Heretofore I had to relate only to students in their late teens and early twenties. Now, I had students who were older than I was! Those years forced me to deal with the aging process for the very first time in my life, for I was no longer concentrating on a small slice of life but rather all of life. My life has never been the same since.

One study really jolted me. It revealed that the average American tends to die within seven years after retirement. The only exceptions being those who, in effect, never retire at all, but merely shift gears, set new goals, new trajectories, and follow new dreams. Or, in the words of a dear friend of mine, Dr. Phil Burgess: “When your career comes to an end–Reboot!” if you fail to institute such a transition, a command goes out from the Commander in Chief of your inner armed forces (your white blood cells); in essence it reads: Demobilize your defending armies! There are no more dreams or goals left to protect! And you die.

There is no such thing as retirement in Scripture. But rather, it is clear that God expects us to live vigorous, creative, caring, helping, growing, becoming lives as long as we draw breath. We deviate from such divine expectations at our own peril.

Several years ago, I shared the results of another related study with you: The body essentially reinvents itself every hundred days. In other words: At the end of every hundred days–at any age!–, I am either measurably stronger or measurably weaker than I was a hundred days earlier. The difference? Daily exercise (vigorous exercise). Up until the time that study reached me, I had been steadily deteriorating physically due to a predominately sedentary lifestyle. Oh I knew full well I ought to exercise–I just kept postponing doing anything about it. But on that day, around fifteen years ago, when I fully assimilated the significance of that study, I made a vow to God that, starting that very day, I’d vigorously exercise every day! No exceptions. Reason being: I knew myself so well I was absolutely certain that if I missed but one day–I’d miss another . . . and another . . . , and all would be lost. Thus if it’s midnight and I haven’t yet exercised, I’ll not go to bed until I have. Result: When I had my last major operation, the hospitalist said, “You have the cardiovascular system of a much younger man! You’d be amazed at how many patients your age do not; in such cases, we don’t dare operate on them.”

My wife and I love to travel. And on cruise ships we can’t help but notice the difference between those who are physically fit and those who are not. Those who are not (sadly, the majority), are obese. They line up by elevators rather than take the stairs; they don’t take day-trips that involve much walking; they graze continuously; they avoid the walking/running tracks on the ship, they loll around for long stretches of most days by the pool, or on the top deck. They are ferried around, even on the ship, in wheelchairs. They, too, are just waiting to die. And everyone who sees them senses it won’t be long.

But it’s all so needless! It’s all so self-determining. I see the difference in every alumni weekend we attend. Former classmates who today can barely walk across the street without help. Who look at you vacantly when you ask them what they’re doing with their lives.

And it gets worse. Just look around you in the local supermarket or mall, as children, teens, and young adults who ought to be in the prime of their lives are already old. Remember the first part of that question?

“A life may be over at sixteen, or barely begun at seventy.”

Untold thousands of young lives today are over–not because they were killed by someone or were involved in accidents–but because they have ceased to grow or become, and have given up on vigorous daily exercise and healthful diets.

So what would it mean to be “barely begun” at seventy years of age? Tune in next week for the conclusion to this series. Its subtitle is “How to Never Get Old.”

Train — The New Way to Travel (Part Two)

BLOG #23, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Two)
June 4, 2014

Please refresh your memory by glancing back at Part One of this tribute to trains, on May 21.

Now, let’s get back to the pluses and minuses of Amtrak travel. A huge plus has to be the seats. In recent years in air flight, the so-called “friendly skies” have become anything but. In order to cram more and more people into these flying cattle cars, seat-size continues to shrink. Width too. Worst of all, knee room. Once a plane is in motion, and the person in front of you reclines the seat, you are lucky if you have an inch or two space between your knees and the seat in front of you. And width-wise, if your seatmate is large (which is more than likely given our national obesity epidemic), you are forced to scrunch and contort your body in order to fit in the remaining space. Needless to say, the combination of the two, bad enough on short flights, can be a recipe for hell on longer ones.

Not so, Amtrak seats: they are wide with plenty of leg room: thus you are free to really stretch out.

As for the nights, that extra space really helps. One serendipity in transcontinental train travel is that when you leave major urban hubs such as Denver or Salt Lake City, enough passengers will have disembarked to enable you to stretch out across two seats. No one tells you that you can, but rarely will anyone stop you from doing so. Of course, if a large number of passengers boarded somewhere in the middle of the night and space became a premium, you’d probably be informed that you would have to surrender one of the two seats.

I’ll do one thing differently next time, however: I’ll take an extra blanket and a pillow. They do turn the lights way down low, which makes it easier to sleep. Sleeper cars, of course, are better. Complete with bedding, bunk beds, toilet, sink, shower, and porter service. But unless you are traveling clear across the country (taking three days), one night in a coach seat is not bad at all. That’s confirmed by the people who, in spite of being awakened by car attendants, sleep through the stops anyhow. But they are the exception, not the norm.

DAY ONE

Since we were late pulling out of Denver, we missed breakfast in the dining car. Consequently, we cobbled together enough items from the Snack Car to get us through. For hours we climbed, along rivers, streams, and canyons, through multitudinous tunnels. But none longer than Moffatt Tunnel (the second longest rail tunnel in the United States). The giant bore was the realization of the dream of David H. Moffatt, a Denver banker, who began in 1902 to construct a railroad west through the towering Rockies. It soon became clear that deep winter snows would bring travel to a halt unless a six-mile-long tunnel could be drilled through the heart of James Peak. Finally, in 1922, the Moffatt Tunnel commission was appointed, and bonds were issued to finance the work. Originally, it was assumed that since the mountain had a granite core, $6,720,000 ought to be enough to complete the project. Once inside the mountain, however, engineers discovered they’d also have to dig through muddy shale, every foot of which would have to be timbered. Result: the price-tag tripled! Even with the tunnel, the elevation is 9,094 feet. To passengers today, it seems to take almost forever to get through it.

Coming out finally, there below was Winter Park Ski Area, one of Colorado’s largest. Passengers had front-row seats as they watched hundreds of descending skiers, and more coming from the far distance. It would be a winter wonderland for some time to come.

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No one wanted to surrender a seat in the Observation Car during the gradual descent through Gore Canyon, following the Colorado River; at Dotsero Junction, where the Eagle River joins the Colorado, the train turns west again, and soon, sheer walls towering over a thousand feet above Glenwood Canyon, almost stops conversation in its tracks. Easily one of the greatest scenic sights in America. In the middle of it, Connie and I were called into the Dining car. What a view! Our entranced table-mates were retirees from West Virginia; a lovely college freshman attending Mesa State in Grand Junction completed our fivesome. Daughter of a professional artist, she was majoring in art herself. So fascinated was she by our travel-related conversations that her eyes widened in wonder as we took her with us all around the world. I shall return to her before I complete this Amtrak series.

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By the way, the highway through Glenwood Canyon took close to twenty years to construct, disrupting traffic for an entire generation.

Late in the afternoon, we stopped briefly in Grand Junction, the state’s fruit-growing heartland. Its Palisade peaches are known nationwide. Also more and more vineyards are being planted here.

Night fell, as we rolled through the Utah mountains. Then came a delicious vegetarian repast in the dining car. Since we’d left home at 5:00 a.m., we were very tired and decided to call it a day at 9:50 p.m. Because we’d gain an hour when we entered the Pacific Time Zone, it meant it was 8:50 p.m., making for a very long night. For even with two seats for each of us to stretch out in, it most certainly was a long ways from our king size bed at home. Our dreams were haunted by the sound of the horn at every railroad crossing and road intersection. Surprisingly, it didn’t keep us awake but rather filled the interstices of our dreams.