A Strangling Christmas Hug

BLOG #52, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
A STRANGLING CHRISTMAS HUG
December 24, 2014

Every Christmas, I read stories aloud to many different groups. When I put a collection together, rarely do I think much about which ones will be the read-aloud winners for the season. But once a new Christmas in My Heart® collection comes out, then I begin trying stories out on various audiences.

At a recent Christmas vespers, after I was through, completely out of the blue, a little girl of about eight rushed at me, gave me a strangling hug, then ran off—all without a word. Obviously, one of the stories I read so touched her heart that she just had to tell me about it – in her case, in a fierce hug rather than in words.

Every year now, for more than twenty years, Janet Parshall has interviewed me about the new Christmas book, on her syndicated Moody Radio show, “Janet Parshall’s America.” On the December 17, 2014 broadcast, she asked me this question: “You’ve pointed out that for every story that makes it into a collection, you routinely pass over 100 – 300 stories that do not. What makes the difference?”

I told her that though I have no formula for defining the difference between winners and losers, one thing I do know: the ones that make it in slam into me [much like the little girl in the second paragraph] and demand to be included. And they burrow into my subconscious and imbed themselves like velcro—impossible to get rid of them.

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And oftentimes, it is the simplest stories that win out over the more complex one. For instance, the one I read on the broadcast, “The Christmas Doll,” by Jeanne Bottrop, an old story written during the Great Depression of the 1930s, why did I include it, given that it is such a simple little story written by an author few people have ever heard of? I told her, I did it because children do not internalize abstractions; they internalize story. Children today are so buried in gifts from so many directions, from so many people, that they find it extremely difficult to empathize with those less fortunate than they. But if they hear a story like this one: of an eight-year-old girl, mother having died when the little girl was three, a father who rarely came to see her, so poor she had only one patched coat, forced to work as hard as adults, who considered a single orange to be a Christmas gift of such value that she’d make it last for weeks, or months. A girl loved by no one who yearned for a doll she could love with every atom of her starved little heart. Might not such a story make a real difference?

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I’ve also read another story, Bruce R. Coston’s “The Gift” (from Christmas in My Heart® 23) a number of times this season. It is a simple little story of a little girl who longed for a kitten, parents who weren’t at all interested in getting her one, a tender-hearted veterinarian [Dr. Coston], and a kitten brought to the vet so that he could put it to sleep. “It was flea ridden and suffered from an upper respiratory infection that left her eyes crusted and red and her nose running. Her ears were filled with mites and her intestines with worms, but she was playful and endearing. She didn’t need a painless death! She needed someone who would afford her a painless life–someone who really cared. Amy came to mind.”

That, in essence, is the simple story—yet, regardless of age, it has deeply moved audience after audience I’ve read it to this Christmas season.

* * * * *

Yes, just simple little stories. Yet compare them to the inanities filling the air-waves today. Which type of story is more likely to help instill positive character traits in listeners, cause them to be kinder, more empathetic?

These are the kinds of stories that are worth their weight in gold. Such stories are the real reason the series has defied the odds by still being alive 23 years after it was first launched.

Stories likely to elicit strangling hugs.

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IN PRAISE OF OLD MAGAZINES

BLOG #10, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
IN PRAISE OF OLD MAGAZINES
March 6, 2013

During the last couple of years the chances are excellent that at any given moment, day or night, I could have been found leafing through, or reading an old magazine. Far more likely than immersion in a book.

Why? Because it is in old magazines that the greatest stories ever written are most likely to be found. During the Golden Age of Print in America (1880s through the 1950s), magazine was king. During much of that time, magazine editors paid writers more for a given story or book manuscript than movie producers or publishing house editors. This is why the appearance of a given story in a magazine normally predated its appearance in a book.

If you were a child or a teen during that Golden Age, you had ever so many choices: long-lived magazines such as The Youth’s Companion (a weekly for over a hundred years), St. Nicholas (a monthly from 1873 to 1939), The Youth’s Instructor (a weekly for over a hundred years), Little Folks, Girl’s Own, Boy’s Own, Young People’s Weekly, Boys World, Girls’ Companion, Jack and Jill, just to name a few.

During that time period, there was an unspoken consensus in the adult world that children were to be protected from obscenities, the dark side of human nature, and printed material that would degrade or disillusion. The flip side was that since America, since its founding, was built on Judeo-Christian bedrock, authors who could memorably articulate those values in their stories and books became household words across the nation, in the Commonwealth, and in the Western World. Recognizing that children would become their favorite stories, parents everywhere religiously conducted daily story hours since the values in these magazines and books could be internalized in the hearts and souls of their listening children. And it worked!

Not so today. Today, when the Christian community is, more often than not, on the defensive, with a secular media vastly out programming it, parents everywhere feel overwhelmed. How can they prevent their children from being destroyed by a society that is openly hostile to Christianity?

I submit that Story is the answer. The stories that once could be found in most every household—but today are crumbling out of existence in old magazines that are being lost to posterity at an alarming rate. Indeed, so fast are these wonderful priceless old magazines being cut up, destroyed, hauled out to the dump, that they will soon be all but extinct.

And this is why my wife Connie and I have dedicated what’s left of our lives to preserving as many as possible of the best of these long ago treasure chests of stories. Sixty-six of our eighty books so far are story anthologies—and most originated in old magazines.

And that’s why, day and night, we are racing against time to preserve as many stories as possible before God calls us home.

Grace Richmond’s Foursquare

    BLOG #1, SERIES 4
    WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
    DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #16
    GRACE RICHMOND’S FOURSQUARE
    January 2, 2013

It is a new year.  The beauty of new years is that they each offer the opportunity to write on a blank slate, to make a brand new start.  2012 is gone – never to return.  2013 is here, young and vibrant, begging to be used.

It is the perfect blog to anchor our reading for the new year as well.  But before I discuss our sixteenth book, since a number of blog-readers may not have been with us back in the fall of 2011 when Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club began, I’m pausing a moment to explain what makes this series different from all others.  Primarily, the fact that I personally choose each selection — not a committee.  From a lifetime of voracious reading, 34 years in the classroom, and studying books en route to a bachelors in history, a masters in English, and a doctorate in English (History of Ideas concentration), certain authors and certain books have risen to the surface.  Books that several generations of students have weighed in on.

I am not a traditional academic, fixated only on classics blessed by academics, but rather a professor who chooses the best and most meaningful books from academic classics, popular culture, and Christian publishing.  Books that have the potential to change lives, to ennoble, to entertain, to inspire.  To put it more succinctly, I draw from books I have loved personally.

A number of our “club” members are former students of mine who miss our book discussions and have signed on for more.  What a joy it is for me to welcome them back into my life!  The rest of you, well you’re now my students too.  A surprisingly large number of people, over the last 21 years, have sighingly said, “If only I could have been one of your students!”  Well, by joining our book club, you become my students.

Created by DPE, Copyright IRIS 2009

Though this book was written a little over 90 years ago, never has it been more timely or more needed than it is today.  Today when, all too often, educators jeer at Christianity and Judeo-Christian values in their classrooms, advocating in their place a gospel of secularism divorced from God, and leaving in their wake a moral twilight.

How long has it been since you read a novel that elevated those old-time values Americans used to live by, and expected to see incorporated into the educational institutions of the land?

This is just such a book.  It moved me many years ago, and moves me still.  Expect to see questions such as these incorporated into the fabric of this timeless romance.

•    Are writing and literature that erode rather than enhance and create Judeo-Christian values worth reading and internalizing?
•    Is extensive exposure to the seamy side of life conducive to purity?
•    Do we still need Christian-based colleges and universities today?
•    Is the product (graduates) of Christian colleges different from that of secular institutions that steer away from spiritually based ethics?
•    Are our youth strong enough to resist mentors who themselves live lives at variance from the values once prized by early Americans?
•    How do mentorees avoid becoming clones?
•    What is the impact of positive versus negative examples?
•    Is it easy–or is it difficult–to cripple or destroy the human spirit?
•    What is this thing called “creativity”?
•    How powerful is music?
•    What does it mean to be a real leader?  Ought a leader to be passionate?
•    What is the role of drama in our lives?
•    Is big better than small?
•    How powerful are books?
•    What do you consider most significant about this book?
•    Is it dated?  If so, how?
•    Does the book change you?  How?

GRACE LOUISE SMITH RICHMOND
(1866 – 1959)

Our readers will remember an earlier book selection by Richmond, her wondrous romance, THE TWENTY-FOURTH OF JUNE (SEE May 23, 2012 blog).

Grace Smith was born on March 3, 1866, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to a minister father, the Rev. Dr. Charles E. Smith and mother, Catherine “Kitty” Kimball Smith. Grace was a direct descendant ot the state’s founder, Roger Williams.  An only child, Grace grew up the focal center of her parents’ manse.  In 1885, after having pastored Baptist churches in Mt. Auburn, Ohio; New Haven, Connecticut; and Syracuse, New York, Dr. Smith was called to Fredonia, New York; and there he would remain for the rest of his life.  On Oct. 29, 1887, Grace married the personable young family doctor, Dr. Nelson G. Richmond, who purchased a home next door to the manse.  So after marriage, Grace merely moved next door.  And it was here in Fredonia that the bride would write her many stories, essays, and novels.

The home.  It all starts there, the action happens there, and it all ends there.  Because of this, Grace Richmond is known as “The Novelist of the Home.”  Of the thousands of writers who have written about the home, only Richmond earned that title.  Only in her fictional world is the home the all-in-all, the core, the bedrock.

Among her other beloved books are novels such as The Indifference of Juliet, The Second Violin, A Court of Inquiry, Red Pepper Burns, Strawberry Acres, The Brown Study, Red Pepper’s Patients, Red and Black, Foursquare, Cherry Square, Lights Up, At the South Gate, The Listening Post, High Fences, and several Christmas novelettes.  She was among the most prolific short story writers in America.  Most of her novels were serialized as well.  For 40 years, she was never out of print.  Of the dominant family authors of the first half of the twentieth century, only Zane Grey, Gene Stratton Porter, and Harold Bell Wright were better known than she; and her name ranked up there with Frances Hodgson Burnett, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Pearl S. Buck, Bess Streeter Aldrich, and Temple Bailey.  It was illustrious company indeed.  At the height of her popularity she was paid upward of $30,000 for magazine serializations (a princely sum back then!).  Doubleday would sell more than 2,500,000 copies of her books.

You should be able to pick up a First Edition or reprint of the book on the web.

Foursquare, by Grace S. Richmond (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1922).  First Edition features special chapter illustrations.

The London Olympics — A Retrospective

BLOG #35, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE LONDON OLYMPICS
A RETROSPECTIVE
August 29, 2012

What a show London threw for the world!

And that’s one thing London appears to do better than any other city in the world, unexcelled as they are in royal pageantry.

Every four years of our lives–barring world wars–, the world gathers for another Olympics. The Winter Olympics, since they disenfranchise the Southern hemisphere countries, can never be truly global. In today’s electronic world, it would be almost unthinkable for any nation to do a no-show for a Summer Olympics for its very place among the family of nations is at stake; not to show up would represent a worldwide black eye. Indeed, these Olympics can truthfully be said to represent the most-watched spectacle on earth. Hence the sheer amount of money and effort expended for bragging rights for specific events.

Each Olympics of our lives gifts us with a new set of heroes and heroines. The coin of the realm is medals, with Gold equating the laurel wreaths of ancient times. One moment, an athlete is unknown; only seconds later, the athlete’s name and image is transmitted on every computer screen in the world. One moment, an athlete may be facing a minimum wage future; only seconds later, endorsements worth millions! No wonder they cry, when they have to settle for fourth place, for not to earn at least a Bronze is to be saddled with an achievement that doesn’t even make a blip on the media screen.

Especially is this true in the U.S., where, sadly, the only medal that appears to count is Gold. On talk shows, Silver and Bronze winners rarely are even approached for interviews. This is, of course, a far cry from the Olympic ideal: To be honored for the effort represented by the achievement of edging out their competitors in their native countries–and thus earning the right to show up in the quadrennial Olympic parade of nations. Tragically, this U.S. led perception that only Gold counts has seeped into the global Zeitgeist and distorted it as well.

The Olympics creates its own royalty. In this respect, case in point is Ethiopia’s most famous runner. So idolized is she that in her home nation she has achieved such a level of idolatry that she is treated as though she were empress of that former monarchy.

The same is true with the so-called “fastest man on earth,” Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Yet even he had to re-earn this status, beating out an up-and-coming Jamaican who had defeated Bolt in Jamaican pre-trials, proving that past laurels are ephemeral at best: lasting only until someone else comes along who proves better, stronger, or faster.

Or if further proof of fame’s short shelf life were needed, we’d need look no further than Michael Phelps, the Superman of swimming. Even though his supremacy in prior Olympics had seemed absolute, he came into the London Olympics under a cloud of doubt, which early meets did little to dispel as in several cases he failed to medal at all. The big question had to do with whether archrival Ryan Lochte might supplant him. But then Phelps awoke, and the lion roared once again, and he finished his astounding Olympic career with 22 medals, 18 Gold, making him perhaps the greatest Olympian ever. At least for now. Next Olympics, in Rio, it will be someone else’s opportunity to shine and inevitably Phelps’ medals will lose their luster. As Robert Frost famously put it in his poem by the same name, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Prior to the Olympics, all around the world, in each nation, as Olympic tryouts took place, those who excelled became locally famous, high hopes held out for the best of them. This local fame crescendoed as each team was sent off to London. In some cases, this early fame proved to be justified; in the majority of cases, it would not, and that early fame wouldn’t even last long enough to accompany the athlete back home.

We couldn’t help but note this phenomenon in the case of our state’s Wunderkind, Missy Franklin, temporarily lauded nationally, lauded as well in Colorado. In her case, however, the hype proved to be justified for she went on to win five medals (five Gold and two World Records). More significantly than that, however, she emerged from the games as America’s new sweetheart, her infectious joie de vivre lighting up every room and venue she entered; and not coincidentally energizing every team meet she participated in. Just as significant, if not more so, had to do with her parents’ determination to value their daughter’s right to a normal growing up over the siren call of professional sports and the money it could shower upon her if she’d just renounce normal girlhood in favor of becoming a cog in professional sports’ straightjacketing and mass-produced squirrel cages, akin to the State-run sports programs operated by medal factories such as China and Russia, in which the athlete’s parents are provided few opportunities to interact with their children.

Nor should we forget the way the so-called “Flying Squirrel” Gabby Douglas, captured the adoration of every little girl in the United States.

A serendipity had to do with the sight of the world’s most iconic couple, William and Kate, reveling in the sights and sounds of the games like any other couples sitting in the stands.

These, of course, are but a few of this year’s crop of Olympians who capture–at least temporarily–hearts all around the world.

See you in Rio!

TREASURES FROM THE PAST #1

One of the responses to the survey has already had its effect: it urged me to keep mining the bullion of the past in my blogs.

I have been working around the clock on my eighth collection of animal stories (Animals of the Jungle). As I searched for stories, in a long-ago essay written by Hildegarde Hawthorne (granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne), published in a magazine for young people early in the twentieth century, I found a timeless treasure of thought perfect as the follow-up to last Wednesday’s blog: “Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow.”

It was inspired by Emerson’s famous poem:

DAYS

“Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bringing diadems and fagots in their hands,
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.”

THE DOORWAY OF THE DAYS
by Hildegarde Hawthorne

A day is a wonderful thing. It is like a great doorway flung wide for you to pass through into all manner of adventures. One after the other, these doorways open to you, each different, each opening on a fresh prospect. Fresh, yourself, after the rest and the stillness of night, you stand each morning on the threshold, and then you step through and are launched on what that day has for you.

Of course, the day, being as it were just this welcoming doorway, can not make you go out to meet what it holds. You can refuse its mighty invitations. It may be a day that opens on shadowy forest paths, on blue headlands, a day where nature is at her most beautiful best. Again it may hold a splendid hour or two of companionship with some one who could tell you much of this nature, who could give you new insight into her mysteries, who could explain what hitherto you had never understood. It might be a day made for running feet and for laughter and joy. It has opened the wide doorway to all this. But of course you can refuse it all. You can turn your back on the prospect before you, spend your hours indoors, fail to meet the friend who was waiting, sulk over some fancied slight or trouble, worry and exhaust yourself in various ways. The doorway of the day will swing close, at last, and the possibilities on which it opened will have gone, perhaps forever.

Supposing you had only one day to live in, like some of the ephemera, whom you may watch in summer, dizzy with their dancing, in a sunbeam. Just one day! Well, it would hold twenty-four hours. How splendid! How much you could do in that time. And how much to choose for the doing, the seeing, the hearing, the feeling, the thinking! A sunrise and a sunset, stars, a moon maybe, winds swaying tree-tops or ruffling water; and then comrades to play with, a fine book to read, music to hear; a ride, perhaps, in a motor-car or on a horse, a walk in a country lane or along a street filled with all manner of things worth looking at; there would be meals to eat, a lesson to study. You would have the joy of bodily exercise, the joy of loving, the delight of conversation with friends. Each hour would hold its own miracle.

At the end, before sleep came, you would find no words to describe the marvel of a day. Room in it for the exercise of all your faculties, for dreams and for reality, for play and for work. A great round day, and you alive in it.

You see, just because there is more than one day, we get too used to them to remember what they really are. We let them slip through our fingers, with their adventures unlived, their beauty unseen. Many a day has been treated as though it were just a bore, when it was simply bursting with exciting thrills. Many a day that held in it a wonderful thing, which you would have cherished all your life, has been allowed to pass away empty. For only what you take from the offerings of each day is yours.

Do you ever think over the manifold ways in which each day is spent by the people on this earth? How an Eskimo spends the day you have given over to school, to football practice, or a game of tennis or to skiing, to a matinee or a quiet time reading while the storm beats on the windows and shouts over the house? How that same day is being spent by a savage in Africa, by a Russian refugee, a coal-miner, a seaman? You can get some notion of all that a day opens on if you let your mind wander a bit in these directions.

It seems to me that the great difference between those who lead a full and interesting life and those who don’t is that the first do not let the fact that there are three hundred and sixty-five days in a year dull the wonderful possibilities of each individual day. They look before and after, of course, for the past and the future add richness to the present. But the day itself is the thing. Because tomorrow you are to go on an entrancing journey, or to the dentist, there is no reason for slighting today. It too has its worth and its gift. Live it. The combination of you and a day is too wonderful to be missed. People throw days away as if they were worthless pebbles, and then complain that life is a poor affair. One of Emerson’s noble sayings was, “Give me health and a day and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous”; and as you grow older you will cherish also in your memories his brief poem on “The Days.” It is a vivid picture in words of what I have been trying to set forth; and every earnest boy and girl can imagine the days going on about their tremendous business rather bewildered and rather amused. Here we are, they say, full of everything. And look how we’re treated and hear how we’re reviled! What’s the matter with these people, anyway?

And then the Days will show each other the unused things they had ready, which were never asked for, like handfuls of fine jewels shining in the light, but which no one stooped to pick up.

“Funny business!” sigh the Days, and if they had heads, there’d be reasons a-plenty for shaking them.

It is interesting to realize that the day that opens its great gate to you is for you only. No one else has just the same day. Even though you go every hour of the twenty-four close with a sister, a brother, a dear friend, and though what happens to you happens too to him or to her, as the case may be, yet the day will not be alike. Half of everything is the thing itself; the other half, its effect on you; and that effect can never be exactly duplicated. That is why it is that one person will get joy and interest out of a day that another will find merely tiresome.

The best will in the world can not keep dull days and dark days entirely away. You are going to miss quantities of things that you could have enjoyed, because you are tired or out of sorts or disgruntled. Other things will come to you that will be hard to bear and sad to live through. But for all that, the greater portion of your days are good days. The doorway they provide leads to much, and it is your own fault if you get only a little.

The fun of being alive and of having these days opening up, one after the other, is tremendous. Out you go to meet them, with your body, your mind, your senses, your questing spirit. You find things to laugh over, or cry over. You find things that set your mind to keen working or that strengthen your muscles or train the faculty of sight or of hearing, that make more proficient your hands, more skillful the whole bearing of your body. You meet something new to you, and have to readjust yourself and your ideas to take it in. To something else you say good-by for the last time. You will have your own interests, however, and the more, the merrier.

As your mind grows and develops, so the interests of your days should grow and extend, and each day coming ought to be more than the one gone, for you yourself are more. The trouble often is that one drops something for each new thing taken up. The play and the ecstasy of youth is lost with the deeper feeling and growing cares of maturity. But the girl or boy who goes on into maturity without losing too much of that young rapture becomes the best sort of man or woman. Don’t let your life go dry; let it keep its sap and freshness. Artists usually excel in this wisdom. The child lives on in them, making them richer and their days more radiant because it has not withered out of them. Keep what has come, and go on to what is due, and you will not be likely to find life a bore or a burden.

I remember how long a day appeared to me when I was a child—not too long, I enjoyed every moment of it, but so much longer than it does now. I had a better understanding of how great a day is, then. Now it seems short; sometimes I feel as though it merely winked at me and vanished. I can quite imagine that when I move on into eternity that eternity will soon seem to be short enough for all I want to do and be. Think of standing and waiting while the great door of eternity swings open and lets you through! But of course a day is after all a portion of eternity, and maybe it is because we are close to one end of eternity in childhood that days are eternal to us then. Why, any spring morning that was fair and welcoming I remember how I would go to lie under a certain apple-tree where the grass grew thick and the bending branches swept it, making a bower of bloom. And there I would dream away several days in a space that must really have been only a couple of hours. I would like to get back the glorious leisure of those days, to feel the promise of eternity in them; but though I haven’t lost the sense of the magnificence of a day, I can’t hold on to its vastness.

Except always in what it offers.

Now and again a day will come with a gift so splendid that you can not help but recognize it and acclaim it. You will say, as you have heard others say, “That was a great day in my life!” But don’t disdain the other days, that blow no trumpets and open no golden treasure-chests. They have their own wonderfulness, that calls to the wonderfulness in you, and through their mighty doorways you step to everything in life.

St. Nicholas, January 1923

DON’T WAIT UNTIL TOMORROW!

Responses are trickling in, in onesies and twosies, as our readers are weighing in, responding to our “First Reader Survey.” We apologize for the delay in posting the March 3 blog—we had a computer glitch. We’re delaying the tabulation of these responses until more come in. But preliminary responses encourage us to hold the course with what has been posted the first year and a half. More on that later.

* * * * *

It has been said that when each of us approaches the autumn of our lives, and looks back, invariably there are many regrets. One of the few exceptions has to do with memories: almost none of us regrets the expenditure of money that made memories possible. Where we do fault ourselves has to do with not making them.

It is so easy, in this journey called life, to postpone vibrant living on the pretext of not having enough money. In reality, with very few exceptions, we always have money for what we really want to spend it on.

Some years ago, in a large Sabbath School in Texas (our average attendance over a thirteen-year period was around 300—all the chapel would hold), I administered a survey. First of all, I asked each person there to look back through the years and rummage around in their minds for the ten most meaningful incidents or events in their lifetime. At the end, they were to rank them according to the long-term impact on the rest of their lives. Then I devoted the rest of the hour to the process, including the prioritizing. Each person would hand in the summation—no names expected—and quietly walk out. There was absolute silence—I can never forget that.

A week later, I reported on the results. So unexpected were they that I subsequently tried the experiment on other groups—invariably, the results remained the same.

What I fully expected were “big” events: job promotions, honors received, brand new cars, winning big games, inheriting a large estate or a great deal of money—but I didn’t get them. What people valued most in retrospect were memories. Most were surprisingly simple, such as the following:

  • One remembered the night her boyfriend broke up with her; she’d escaped to her room, unable to face anyone with her grief. There came a soft knock on her door. Then her mother came in, took one look at her daughter’s tear-stained face, crawled over to her, took her in her arms, and held her all night, not leaving until dawn—thereby forging a bond that lasted for life.
  • A heart-stopping sunset seen from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
  • The look of absolute trust and adoration on one bride’s face, as she looked at her husband-to-be as she came down the aisle on her father’s arm.
  • A never-to-be-forgotten Christmas when there was no money to buy gifts; Dad was out of work and Mom was expecting within only weeks. So they each made their presents with whatever was available, and decorated the scraggliest excuse for a tree anyone could imagine. Yet, in retrospect, so much love was expressed that, with no exception, every member of the family considered that Christmas to be one of the fondest memories of their lifetimes.
  • A son of missionary parents begged, borrowed or scraped up enough money to travel clear across America in a bus to Miami, where he boarded a plane to the island in the West Indies where his parents lived—and, totally unannounced, walked in on them on Christmas Day. Later he would say, “The look of unbelieving shock on Mom’s face when she looked up and saw me standing there—well, it’s as clear in my memory as though it were yesterday!
  • A teen-age daughter who felt estranged from her undemonstrative father, on a vacation, was reluctant at first to accept her father’s invitation to take a walk with him down the beach. But she agreed to go. Sunset came and went, night fell, and he opened up his heart to her, telling her, in halting words, how much he treasured her, loved her; and she, in turn, shared her long pent-up dreams with him. Arm in arm, they walked that beach far into the night.

Relationships. Feelings. Family. Love. What failed to appear on those 300 survey responses were all the things our media and advertisers tell us are essential to happiness: new cars, expensive gadgetry, job promotions, honors, luxuries, large inheritances, winning big games, buying mansions or yachts or expensive jewelry.

I’ve never been able to look at life the same since.

Epiphanies—we never see them coming, don’t recognize them when they’re happening; only in retrospect do we realize how different our lives would have been had that one day never been. That long-ago survey represents just such a day in our personal journeys. Connie and I resolved to stop postponing living: “Someday—we’ll do this.” “Someday, we’ll travel here, there,” realizing that “someday” never happens unless we will them to; unless we sacrifice to make them happen.

Even though we were always short of money, we traveled with our two children, Greg and Michelle, to beauty-spots all across the nation. Oh we wondered if it was worth it when they bickered constantly in the back seat, and complained until we wanted to scream—and occasionally did. So how passing strange it is to hear them reminisce (now that they’ve grown up and established homes of their own) about the wonderful things they saw and experienced during those long-ago trips: “We were so lucky! Most of our friends never got to see all those places that we did!”

IN CONCLUSION

So . . . I urge each person reading these lines to resolve to henceforth live each day of life to the fullest, and make lasting memories—real ones, not vicarious electronic ones—with their loved ones, families, and friends. For none of us is guaranteed a tomorrow.

We only have this moment!

What about you? Looking back over your own life, what are your own favorite memories? Please let us know during this week.

Published in: on March 9, 2011 at 8:54 am  Comments (2)  
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PLAGIARISM—WHY AMERICANS CANNOT NOT CHEAT

Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis is but the latest reminder that, in the Internet Age, one can run but cannot hide from one’s words: Plagiarism is getting increasingly difficult to hide—as McInnis has discovered to his chagrin. Former University of Colorado regent Jim Martin, in his “Dishonesty in the Internet Age” (The Denver Post, July 15, 2010), notes that “A story several years ago on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ profiled a University of Virginia professor’s new innovation to catch Internet cheaters—a search engine that can locate patterns of phrasing and match them to other works. The device has already turned up a number of cheaters not only in academia, but also in other areas of our lives.”

As a long-time English and writing professor I can testify that it is incredibly easy to spot cheating in term papers, for once I get a feel for an individual’s style of writing (in controlled writing assignments in classrooms), any significant stylistic deviance from the norm jumps out at me. The difficulty heretofore has been to track down the source the student copied from. No longer: my teaching colleagues tell me that it’s amazing how quickly they can track down an original source thanks to Google et al.

Which brings us to the core issue: Why do we cheat?

Increasingly, we cheat because we cannot not cheat. Permit me to explain why. Before I wrote my book, Remote Controlled (Review and Herald Publishing, 1993), I first researched the subject of the impact of television on the American people for over 30 years. One of the key resulting epiphanies of that research was this: the ability to think, write, and create is not a given; it is extremely difficult to achieve because it can only come into being by having an inquiring mind; a sense of wonder; by questions that never stop; by voracious reading in books, magazines, and newspapers; by daily journaling. Where writing is concerned, we are all works in progress—we never arrive, because knowledge is increasing by the nanosecond. That’s why the Chinese have a proverb: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Staying in tune with the Zeitgeist has never been more difficult than it is today.

Nor is it easy to be a researcher (the job Scott McInnis was paid $300,000 for). I tell my students, “It’s not easy to write a good term paper. Unless you so immerse yourself into reading about your chosen subject, and writing notes from all those sources, you’ll never experience that mysterious breakthrough marathon runners talk about: when you literally break through a mental or physical barrier into a new dimension—you’ll know you’re there when you start dreaming about it. When that happens, you can write your paper in your own style. Otherwise, you’ll only be capable of a String of Pearls term paper: one quotation followed by insipid words leading to another quotation—on and on and on. Because the subject never became part of you.”

And that’s the tragedy of our age. We encourage our children to follow the path of least resistance—they faithfully follow our suggestion. How? By staring zombie-like into electronic screens hour after hour. But virtually none of that imagery can ever be their own: it was all created by someone else, and thus it was blasted straight into their mental archives without any involvement of the receiver’s brain. That’s why, when I tell a class of Freshman Composition students to take out a sheet of paper and begin to write, the reader (having many stylistic templates to draw from) can hardly wait to begin writing; the non-reader, however, can only stare at the piece of paper, being incapable of writing a coherent sentence or paragraph.

That’s why millions who grow up plagiarizing cannot not cheat: because of years of mental laziness, there is nothing original (unique to them alone) in their brains to draw from. So they have only two alternatives: fail the course—or cheat.

But when they grow up and enter the workaday world, sooner or later there will come a day of reckoning, when the boss will discover that this particular employee is incapable of original thought. Fortune 500 CEOs have developed a test for prospective employees that involves a series of interlocking steps leading to a solution. When the prospects take the test, they discover that a step was left out (such as A, B, D, E); the reader, having developed a part of the brain scholars call “the library,” where the brain talks to itself, is able to bridge the gulf, or synapse, en route to a solution. The non-reader can only stare at the gulf till Doomsday, unable to move on.

Which brings us back to Jim Martin, who concludes his insightful commentary with these sober words:

Our age of instant information offers in nearly every aspect of business, academia and media the temptation to exalt outcome over process, to value doing something quickly over doing it effectively and honestly.

Somehow, our citizens have come to believe that money or pride matters more than integrity. And we have allowed this to happen.

Our lessons about achieving excellence, getting into the “best” schools and colleges, getting elected to public office and the general opulence and promise offered of e-business have sent a dangerous message to our citizens people: you can have it all and have it now.

Maybe public exposure will put an end to this character defect, but I doubt it. In the long run, society at large will have to re-establish the values of effort and process, rather than simply holding up too high the rewards of success, power, being elected, or money.

All in all, this will be a difficult task, but the message must go out loud and clear—that there is no such thing as instantaneous writing, and that those shortcuts shortchange.

That message may sound old and familiar, but that’s because it is lifted from the familiar lessons of life, not some site on the Internet.

SPECIAL NOTE

Next week, we begin a four-month series of blogs on our historic national park lodges in the Northwest (we just returned from visiting each one).