I was worried Thanksgiving dinner wouldn’t be the same this year without Uncle Alfred. Every year for as long as I can remember, when the time came for each of us to name something we were thankful for, Uncle Alfred would tell his famous Story of the Shoes.
“Your mother was six and I was nine when I had to cut the ends off my shoes to let my toes stick out. A year later, I couldn’t get my foot in them at all. On really cold days, I’d wrap my feet in newspaper and bind it with brown twine. I always knew where to find the twine because the newspaperman would cut the bundles apart at Ninth and Pike every morning, right in front of Boscov’s Department Store.
One morning in late November I was looking at a pair of shoes in the window of Boscov’s when I heard a woman’s voice behind me say, “A penny for your thoughts.”
I turned around and there she was, holding out a penny. You could buy penny candy in those days, so I took the penny and I told her the truth, even though I was horribly embarrassed. “I was asking God for a pair of shoes.” Her face fell a little when I said that, so I thought she was disappointed in my answer and wanted her penny back, so I dropped my eyes to the ground. That’s when she lifted my chin with her fingertips and smiled.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Alfred,” I answered.
She held open the door to Boscov’s with one hand and extended the other to me, “Come inside with me Alfred.”
I had never been inside Boscov’s.
She sat me down in the shoe department, unwrapped the newspaper from my feet, and told the clerk to bring seven pairs of socks, all the same color. She put two pairs of socks on me, then told the clerk to fit me with the finest pair of work boots that money could buy, but fit them a little loose because I was obviously a growing boy.
Standing up in those new boots, I felt six feet tall.
She paid the clerk, then handed me the boot box that contained the other five pairs of socks. She shook my hand and said, “Happy Thanksgiving, Alfred, and Merry Christmas.” And then she began to walk away.
That’s when I was surprised to hear my own quavering voice ask, “Are you God’s wife?”
The beautiful lady turned and smiled, “No, baby doll, I’m Mrs. McGovern.”
Uncle Alfred always finished his Story of the Shoes in exactly the same way. “I never saw Mrs. McGovern again, but I’ll remember her for as long as I live.” And then he would wipe the tears from his cheeks.
Uncle Alfred never married and he never left Reading, Pennsylvania. But he rose through the ranks to become a railroad executive and did very well for himself. But my Uncle Alfred also did good. For every year in late November, beginning when he was 17, Alfred would purchase a substantial new pair of shoes for as many poor children as he could afford. Hundreds of children a year. And every pair would be delivered with a note that said, “A Gift from Mrs. McGovern.”
And now I must break your heart.
I don’t have an Uncle Alfred.
“We are all very good at suspending our disbelief. We do it every day, while reading novels, watching television or going to the movies. We willingly enter fictional worlds where we cheer our heroes and cry for friends we never had.”
– Marco Tempest, in his 2012 TED talk
“Fiction is usually seen as escapist entertainment…But it’s hard to reconcile the escapist theory of fiction with the deep patterns we find in the art of storytelling… Our various fictional worlds are– on the whole– horrorscapes. Fiction may temporarily free us from our troubles, but it does so by ensnaring us in new sets of troubles– in imaginary worlds of struggle and stress and mortal woe… Fiction also seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard.”
– Jonathan Gottschall
Facts tell. Stories sell. And specifics are more believable than generalities.
I call these specifics, “reality hooks.” They make a story feel true, even when it’s not.
I put 62 of them into my story of Uncle Alfred. See if you can find them.
My story of Uncle Alfred was simply a doctored-up version of a story attributed to the late Leo Buscaglia. Here’s how it’s usually told:
A (nameless) barefoot boy was staring through the window of a (nameless) shoe store on a cold day (in a nameless town.)
A (nameless) lady approached him and said, ‘My, but you’re in such deep thought.’ The boy replied, ‘I was asking God to give me a pair of shoes.’
Taking him by the hand the lady led him into the store and asked the clerk to get half a dozen pairs of socks for the boy. Then she asked him to get her a basin of water and a towel. (Because, you know, shoe store clerks always have a basin of water and a towel handy.) So he quickly brought them to her. She then washed the feet of the boy and dried them with the towel. Placing a pair of socks on the boy’s feet, she then purchased a pair of shoes for him.
As she turned to go, the astonished kid caught her by the hand.
Looking up into her face, with tears in his eyes, he asked her: ‘Are you God’s wife?’
Yes, it’s a pretty story and it has a fine moral and it echoes the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the last supper. But did it ring as true as my story of Uncle Alfred and Mrs. McGovern in the shoe department at Boscov’s in Reading, Pennsylvania?
If you would be more convincing, remember this: specifics are more believable than generalities.
And just for the record, the Boscov’s at Ninth and Pike in Reading, Pennsylvania, was built in 1918. You can double-check that, if you like.
Can you say, “reality hook”?
Indy said to tell you Arooo.
Roy H. Williams
If Michael Bublé was a woman, having a joyful, jazzy Christmas, this is what it would sound like. That’s What I Want For Christmas transports you back to a time of beautiful lyrics and luscious melodies. Celebrate the Christmas season with Big Band grooves and soulful sounds sprinkled with warm and nostalgic tenderness. (Cathy Fleck has been part of Wizard Academy since it’s earliest days 17 years ago. She and Mike are good friends of Princess Pennie and the wizard. Album cover = album site. Text link = iTunes. Hear Cathy’s Wizard Academy song in the Rabbit Hole! – Indy
Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick… As the final days of 2017 wind down, we begin looking for legal strategies we can use to cut our tax bills before the big ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s eve. In today’s edition of MondayMorningRadio, financial planner Rob Eagleston shares some of the ideas he’s accumulated during his 18-plus-year career serving entrepreneurial clients, beginning with the first thing every business owner and professional absolutely must do, if they haven’t already. Listen in as Roving reporter Rotbart rides high in the saddle at MondayMorningRadio.com