The greatest joy this time of year comes from finding ways to share with others. It is more fun when you can do so without recognition. That's easy for me. I have a secret identity. For more than a decade, on a special day each December, I strip down to my thermals, tie a pillow to my stomach and pull on bright baggy pants. I don a fur-trimmed jacket, a wide black belt and heavy black boots. I also tug on a wig of long white hair and then glue on a lengthy, thick and wavy beard. I even slip on totally useless spectacles. One moment, I am just an unassuming blind fellow with EarPods hanging from my head. In a twinkling, I become Saint Nick.
My annual volunteer role as Santa Claus takes me to a local elementary school where I pass out books to many hundreds of young children. Since the real Santa can see everything, including whether someone has been naughty or nice, I've learned to fake it. I never show up with a dog or cane, but rather am accompanied by helpful elves who serve as sighted guides. Santa's little helpers also whisper to me what each child is wearing and any other detail that might help me personalize their experience. On rare occasion, a little one will point out that I am not looking directly at them. I slowly take off my glasses, wipe them on my sleeve, and quietly explain that I have a little "snow blindness." There is always at least one boy that thinks he needs to tug on my beard and a few will try to grab the book out of my gloved hand and run. That never works. Santa is strong. This jolly old gent will only let go of his books when he is good and ready.
The easiest part of my Santa job is to make books feel like the best present in the world. I understand that truth. I discovered science fiction in the sixth grade after reading "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle. As a teenager, I used to take my weekly earnings from my part-time jobs and trek over to the B. Dalton Booksellers. I would usually buy about ten paperbacks on each visit and generously give them to myself. I collected everything written by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and many others. I adore my books.
Over the years, as my vision faded, I moved to Braille and recorded media. Braille is great, but I have always been a very, very slow Braille reader. By the time I might finish a chapter, I could not remember how it began. Talking Books became my lifeline. Two of the earliest books I listened to on vinyl records were William L. Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and James Clavell's "Shogun." I had to read. I even dragged my Library of Congress record player into the attic during a weeklong spring cleaning and listened to the entire collection of Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
When Talking Books moved to four-sided cassettes, I was able to carry my books wherever I went. And, I could push a slide on the bulky government-issued player and speed up the reading. This was fun only if you liked listening to Minnie Mouse.
Audio books finally found their way into my pocket with the APH BookPort and a new service called Audible. Beginning in 2004, I would visit the Audible website, find books I wished to purchase, and then download them to my device for local playback. That is much the same process for my iPhone today.
I read a lot of Audible books on my iPhone. Although purchases from Audible must still be made from their website, I spend most of my time inside the iPhone Audible app where I listen to my books. Once purchased, my books are permanently stored in my Audible Cloud library and easily accessed from the Audible app. When I want a book on my iPhone, I download it. When I finish it, I can delete it from my device. The permanent copy is always safe, ready to be downloaded again. I also find the Audible app is very stable and very accessible. Admittedly, I wish Audible could integrate the purchasing process into the app, but I am happy with how well almost everything else works.
Audible has a phenomenal collection of books, in many languages, along with old time radio shows, theatrical productions and lecture series. To satisfy my reading addiction, I chose to become a Platinum member, which means putting out a chunk of change to purchase 24 redeemable credits. The plan also comes with other benefits. For those who have busier lives and do not read as much, there are other Audible membership options. Almost all offerings on Audible can be bought with a single credit, which averages about $10 for Platinum members. When you find a book for $20, you use a credit. If you see something for $5, you use your credit card.
One of my first purchased Audible books was "Ringworld" by Larry Niven. Great book! I have read it in print, on vinyl, on cassette and now on my iPhone. In fact, I now read everything through my iPhone. The Audible icon sits on the top row of my Home screen where it is launched every day. My most current book is the latest private detective novel by Robert Galbraith, a pseudonym of J. K. Rowling. I have listened to all of her Harry Potter books, but it is fun to read this entirely different genre from the same author. At present, I am also reading "The Violin" by David Schoenbaum. I should note that the violin book will likely bore all but the most serious violin enthusiasts, but I am enjoying it. So many books, so little time. Fortunately, since I had overdosed on political news during the last several months and have now gone "cold turkey," I have even more time to bury my ears in good books.
My personal Audible library holds many surprises and I often rummage through the stacks looking for books I have not yet read, or to find something special that is worth revisiting. I get excited when I find totally unexpected nuggets in my collection. Dean R. Koontz is best known for novels that explore the supernatural, but my brother found a very moving tale the author wrote about his beloved Golden Retriever in "A Big Little Life." Stephen King, best known for the Overlook Hotel, raging psychopaths and pandemic plagues, wrote and personally narrated an excellent introspective for budding authors called "On Writing." Still, if you are looking for something that will kick your heart rate into high gear and leave you with goose bumps, just read about the spelunking in "Blind Descent," a novel by Nevada Barr. One particular scene in that book will stay with you for a very long time.
So many of my acquisitions are worth reading more than once. Some notables are "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson, "Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies" by June Casagrande, and a worthy book set that cost me two credits, "Conspiracy of Fools" by Kurt Eichenwald.
However, if you need the occasional break from regular fiction or non-fiction, you can always find large Audible collections of old time radio. For instance, I have purchased a lot of "Dragnet," "Richard Diamond" and many episodes of "The Shadow." "Who knows what lurks in the hearts of men?" Audible knows. And, there are plenty of more recent dramatic audio productions to discover and enjoy. Searching through Audible is like hunting for treasure.
So, what do I plan to give me as a present this year? I'm thinking I'd like to renew my Platinum membership. That will be a nice gift. I'm easy to please.
Immersing myself in Audible books is always fun, but the greater joy still comes from my giving books to children while impersonating Santa Claus. I dearly love hearing the excitement in their voices as they try to quickly dictate their long lists of proposed gifts. My favorite was a young lady, who was perhaps seven or eight years old. My elves told me she was dressed in an immaculate red dress with a crisp white petticoat. Her hair had obviously been carefully curled and she had very festive ribbons tied in her hair. She approached Santa, absolutely confident in what she planned to share. I asked, as I often did, what gifts she might like to receive for the holidays. Not missing a beat, she replied with total self assurance, "An Easy Bake Oven, and diamonds."
*** G. Morgan Watkins spent thirty years at the University of Texas at Austin, most of it in information technology leadership. He also enjoyed thirteen years on the Board of Directors at Guide Dogs for the Blind. After retiring from the University, Morgan served as the Guide Dogs for the Blind Acting President and CEO.
Morgan is now happily retired again, taking more time to study string instruments and play his violin. Morgan has created 15 other blogs for AppleVis, including “No News is Good News: Breaking my iPhone news addiction”, “Lost In Space: Canes, dogs and my iPhone GPS apps” and “Sleeping With The Stars: Old Time Radio and my iPhone”.