Recalled to life

“Dad! I checked your blog and you haven’t written anything since April!”

That my daughter, Susan, reads my blog is exciting news. That she expects me to keep it up is high praise.

I don’t blog to introduce guilt into my life. But, in this case, a little guilt may not be a bad thing. Well, let’s not call it guilt. I’ll settle for “awake up call,” instead.

May was busy with end-of-semester activities, graduation, and preparations for a month-long trip to Southern Africa (more about that in subsequent posts).

Since returning from my travels, my blog muse has been unusually silent and I have allowed myself to enjoy uncharacteristically low productivity and to wallow in major self-indulgence—though I suppose some will argue that writing a blog is the ultimate display of self-indulgence.

Thanks to Susan’s not so subtle nudge, I am recalled to life. More to come…

Paying It Forward

Last week, I lost my cell phone. This is not just any cell phone. This is a titanium Blackberry Curve 8300 that receives my email and holds my address book, calendar, to do list, notes, and important information like user IDs and passwords for a slew of online accounts. Discovery of the loss made me ill, not to mention angry at my carelessness.

My first response was to call ATT Wireless where I learned I could disable the phone by going to their web site and clicking on the “Report a Lost/Stolen Phone” link. Next, I changed passwords for accounts I thought might be vulnerable.

Having moved through the initial stages of shock, anger, and denial, getting to acceptance seemed the most reasonable way to handle the situation. I called ATT Wireless again and explored replacement options. Not eligible for an upgrade and without loss/replacement insurance, the cost of a new phone came to nearly $500. Acting as if I were in a state of acceptance, I placed the order.

My home phone rang about 9:30 p.m., just as I was preparing to go to bed. “I’m looking for Dennis,” said a male voice.

“He’s speaking,” I said.

“This is Phil R—. I think I found your cell phone in front of Staples this afternoon. I hope you won’t mind, but I went through your address book looking for a clue to who the owner might be. That’s how I found your number.”

“That’s no problem,” I said. “I’m just happy to know it’s been found.”

“You must be a pretty important guy, cause there’s sure a lot of stuff in there!”

We negotiated a meeting. Fifteen minutes later, I met Phil in the parking lot of Mickey’s Pub, less than a mile from my house. “Wow! Thank you,” I said, as he handed me my phone. “I’m so happy to have it back. This represents quite a loss.”

The following morning, I thought I was probably still in shock when Phil handed me the phone and I had failed to offer him any kid of reward or recognition. After thinking about it all day, I called Phil (his phone number was still on my caller ID).

“This is Dennis, they guy whose cell phone you returned last night. I just wanted to thank you again and to tell you how grateful I am to have it back.”

“You’re welcome, Dennis,” he said. “I appreciate that.”

“Phil, it occurred to me that I really should have offered to do something for….”

“I really don’t want anything,” Phil said, cutting me off.

“I understand,” I said. “I would feel the same way if I had found your phone. It’s the right thing to do.”

“Right,” he said. “I’m fine with that.”

“Well,” I said, “I think one good turn deserves another. I believe in paying it forward and I’d like to do something for you. I can make a contribution to a charity….”

“I don’t want any credit.”

“I’m going to do something, though, and it may as well be something you’d like.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll think about it and get back to you.”

“Okay. Thanks,” I said. “I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”

It’s been a week and I haven’t heard from Phil. Last night, talking with my neighbor, Cathy, I told her the story. “I have the perfect thing,” she said. “Safe Grad Night.”

“What a good idea,” I said. “I love that.” I went home and wrote the check.

A Circle of Friends

Google “circle of friends” and get over 3.6 million hits in less than 0.11 seconds. Everything from kids’ shampoo to support groups for Klippel-Fiel Syndrome, Maeve Binchy’s novel to Mexican imports. Mexican Imports, a web site specializing in rustic antiques and Mexican folk art, touts its “Circle of Friends” candle holder as “the world’s #1 gift.” That a piece of “rustic” Mexican folk art is the world’s number one gift is debatable; friendship is not.

Harriet and Don have been a part of my life for over thirty years. Living in Taft, a gritty little town in the southwest corner of California’s San Joaquin Valley, we were drawn together by a mutual love of literature. Over a period of eight years, we organized book discussions, poetry readings, foreign and art film screenings. We produced readers’ theater performances for children and adults, lenten programs featuring liturgical music, drama, and dance. We became friends.

When Harriet and Don retired, they moved into their dream home, a New England-style saltbox cottage on a wooded hill adjacent to the California Central Coast. Filled with primitive colonial American antiques, books, music, and memories spanning more than sixty years of married life, their home is a place where ideas are shared, discussed, and appreciated. It’s a place where Harriet and Don enjoy being known simply as “the folks who live on the hill.”

Two years after Harriet and Don retired, a change in career and lifestyle took me to Southern California. Throughout a period in my life I can characterize only as doubt-filled, confused, and tumultuous, I was sustained by Harriet and Don’s steadfast and unquestioning friendship.

Since leaving Taft, we’ve continued to organize annual or semi-annual reunions around particular themes or activities: a play, a music festival, a ballet, a movie, a poetry reading, a meal, simply being together. Regardless of the activity or theme, we’re fond of referring to our gatherings as “w’ot larx” after an exchange between Pip and Joe Gargery in Dickens’s Great Expectations.

Dori and I met when I joined a gay and lesbian business networking organization in the San Fernando Valley. Through her gay business partner, having recently lost her beloved son to the AIDS virus, Dori became active in the organization as a way of giving meaning to her life and of dealing with Kirk’s death. Our friendship was instant, organic, and without any question that we were destined to be the closest of friends.

Vivacious, effervescent, and intellectually curious, Dori radiates joie de vivre. Her presence lights up a room. People love her and love to be with her. Dori paints, writes poetry and prose, loves movies and music of all types, enjoys travel, and reads voraciously. “Enthusiasm” describes whatever time we spend together. There is never enough time. While we’re sad when it runs out, we’re always enthusiastic about the next time we’ll be together.

On a Sunday morning over an elegant brunch Dori had prepared, discussing a poem, whatever we were reading, or some idea of importance to both of us at the moment, I proposed that she meet my friends, Harriet and Don. “They’ve experienced the loss of a child, they have a daughter who is a lesbian, and they share your love of literature, art, music, movies, and travel.” Soon after, I arranged a week-end meeting at Harriet and Don’s. The chemistry was perfect and, as I watched it develop over the course of the week-end, I was suffused with gratitude that my intuition had been correct. Gathered in Harriet and Don’s living room to share the poems we’d each selected for the occasion, I recalled seeing on Dori’s patio a piece of crude terra cotta pottery she called “a circle of friends.” It seemed the perfect symbol of the friendship I shared with Harriet and Don and that we now shared with Dori. A few weeks later, an acquaintance returned from a trip to Baja California with several circle of friends candle holders. Coincidence? Synchronicity? I bought two and gave one to Harriet and Don.

By myself at home, when I light my circle of friends candle, I am immediately recalled to “w’ot larx” we’ve enjoyed. Its glow reminds me that the gift of Harriet, Don, and Dori’s friendship not only brightens my life, but, like the terra cotta figures linked in a circular embrace, it binds me to a shared history and grounds my identity. The gift of my circle of friends enriches my life.

Bringing light

From her earliest days as an entertainer and activist, Joan Baez has inspired millions through her music and by her actions. Her life is characterized by her passionate and ceaseless efforts to bring the healing light of peace and social justice to the dark corners of the world. Until recently, she has resisted pressure to endorse political candidates. But, the times are changing for Baez and, I hope, for the future of the U.S. On Sunday, February 3, 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle, carried the following letter to the editor under the heading Leader on a new journey:”

Editor – I have attempted throughout my life to give a voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless, encouragement to the discouraged, and options to the cynical and complacent. From Northern Ireland to Sarajevo to Latin America, I have sung and marched, engaged in civil disobedience, visited war zones, and broken bread with those who had little bread to break.

Through all those years, I chose not to engage in party politics. Though I was asked many times to endorse candidates at every level, I was never comfortable doing so. At this time, however, changing that posture feels like the responsible thing to do. If anyone can navigate the contaminated waters of Washington, lift up the poor, and appeal to the rich to share their wealth, it is Sen. Barack Obama. If anyone can bring light to the darkened corners of this nation and restore our positive influence in world affairs, it is Barack Obama. If anyone can begin the process of healing and bring unity to a country that has been divided for too long, it is Barack Obama. It is time to begin a new journey.

Joan Baez
Menlo Park

Nickel and dimed

I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a scathing indictment of welfare reform and its effect on the lives of the working poor in the U.S. In the book’s conclusion, Ehrenreich writes, “when someone works for less pay than she can live on… she has made a great sacrifice for you…. The ‘working poor’ …are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone (p. 221).”

On the one hand, the book is utterly depressing. On the other, it is a jolt to my middle class comfort. I am angry as hell because this situation exists in the “wealthiest and most powerful” nation on earth. I am angry, too, because I am now more aware of it. I feel a need to find a productive use for my anger.

When I expressed my feelings to a community college colleague whose judgment and experience I respect, she reminded me that the work we do in community colleges makes a difference in the lives of people living on the edge; community colleges provide a path from the abyss of lifelong poverty.

At times it feels like there are not enough hours in the day for faculty, staff, and administrators to accomplish all that needs to done. But when I think about the programs and services offered through California community colleges that benefit students enormously, I am reminded why I love what we do, why I am grateful to be a part of what we do, and why I am grateful to share this effort with all of my colleagues.

Whether weather

It rained for a short time last night. Rain is unusual in the desert. I don’t own an umbrella, raincoat, or any rain gear, for that matter. Showers rarely last long enough to require rain paraphernalia. Now that I think about it, in the desert, we don’t have “weather” in our vocabulary. We talk about “temperature” and “sunshine.” Oh, and “wind.” That’s not weather. It’s simply what is. Whether hot, cold, or somewhere in between, there is always sunshine. And wind.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains lie to the west of us. In the Sierras there’s weather. And it changes quickly and dramatically. We know its winter in the Sierras because its capricious weather often dusts the mountain crests with a faint sprinkling of powdered sugar-like snow, as if to remind us that winter weather in the Sierras is real. Last night, the Sierra winter weather ventured over its mountain tops and marched down its eastern slopes to deposit a blanket of brilliant white snow as low as 3,000 feet.

It usually takes less than 15 minutes to drive the six miles from my house to my office. This morning, it took more that 35 minutes because of the frequent stops to admire the show the Sierra winter weather whipped up for us last night as we slept.

This evening, it’s gotten very cold. I’m enjoying a cup of hot chamomile tea and listening to Robbie snore gently at my back. It’s raining lightly as I write this post. I understand the Sierra winter weather has something more earnest in store for us tonight.

Paris… on my own

Enjoying the first two weeks of January alone in Paris (i.e., without travel companions to whom I felt obliged to play tour guide) and without a personal tourist agenda was heavenly. I rented a cozy apartment off rue des Martyrs in the 9th (Opéra) arrondissement where Sacre Coeur overlooks the quartier like a grande dame wearing a necklace of sex shops and clubs strung along the Boulevard de Clichy. The juxtaposition of the two images suggests both sublime and ridiculous aspects of the legend of St. Denis.

I was pleased to learn that the wonders of modern technology make postcards passé—except, of course, for family and friends who don’t do email. A photo of the Tour Eiffel, for example, taken with and shared by email using my BlackBerry, was shot from the Jardins des Tuileries, between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde. Apparently, I moved as I snapped the photo, resulting in its fuzzy quality—an impressionist effect, I think. Alors, je suis un artiste!

The best part of my stay in Paris was connecting with old friends and making new friends. I connected with Pam, a friend who lives in Paris—we chat often online but hadn’t seen each other in over two years. We spent a delightful afternoon (one of several) together exploring rue des Martyrs and adjacent streets. Pam and I love Indian food and we found a great Indian restaurant in the Place Gustave Toudouze where we enjoyed a lunch of hot curry, dal, cold rice pudding with cardamom, and hot coffee.

After lunch, I introduced Pam to À l’Étoile d’Or, a well-known chocolaterie owned by Denise Acabo, an eccentric dame d’un certain age, who knows everything about chocolate from every part of the world. She’s had her shop for over 38 years, dresses in a French school girl’s uniform, and wears her hair in pigtails. Denise is the friend of a friend who asked me to stop by to give her his meilleurs voeux. The impact of the visit on Pam was a 30€ expenditure on chocolate and, the following morning, an effusive blog post about her chocolaterie experience.


On another day, over coffee at a cafe in the Marais, I was introduced to Claire, a lively, witty, and intelligent woman who is a “national treasure” in terms of what she knows about and who she knows in Paris. For example, she introduced me to La Bibliothèque des Amis de l’Instruction, an organization founded in the 19th century to promote education among those who, because of social class or lack of resources, did not have access to education. I am excited to know about this library because the idea of its founding relates to similar organizations founded about the same time in the U.S. of which I learned when doing research years ago for my dissertation. Claire offered to introduce me to the director of the library. Perhaps there’s a sabbatical in my future.

Paris winters can be unpleasantly cold and rainy, but my stay in Paris was blessed with mild temperatures and several sunny days ideal for getting out and exploring my favorite place on earth. My Paris séjour came to an end.

Which book are you?

A friend, who I refer to as “the muse of my online life,” blogged about a personality test she recently discovered. By answering only six questions, it is possible to learn which book represents your personality. My attempt at the test identified me as Siddhartha. The precision of the personality description is uncanny… except for the “lonely” bit.

You’re Siddhartha!

by Hermann Hesse

You simply don’t know what to believe, but you’re willing to try anything once. Western values, Eastern values, hedonism and minimalism, you’ve spent some time in every camp. But you still don’t have any idea what camp you belong in. This makes you an individualist of the highest order, but also really lonely. It’s time to chill out under a tree. And realize that at least you believe in ferries.

Star Splangled Sex Education

In 1956, when I was 12 years old, my mom and dad bought a 13-acre farm in Fulton, California, seven miles north of Santa Rosa, where we lived for three years before moving back to town.

My sister, Gaynl, age 9, brother, Mike, age 7, and I enjoyed many wonderful experiences that provided us with childhood memories we are still fond of sharing. On the farm we had a Collie named Bonnie, a horse named Princess, cats, chickens, vegetable gardens, and fruit trees. We had fresh-laid eggs with brilliant yellow yolks and we learned that fresh eggs, when hardboiled, are nearly impossible to peel.

Mom was the quintessential Good Housekeeping Mom who canned peaches, pears, apples, pickles, jams, and jellies. Each summer she would make an embarrassment of applesauce, apple pies, and apple butter with Gravenstein apples grown in orchards not far from us in Graton. She froze the pies and we enjoyed them on cold winter evenings, still warm from baking, as we watched TV in front of a blazing fire. Canned pears were used to make pear crisp, my favorite dessert, which we enjoyed warm with fresh cream.

To enhance our awareness of and appreciation for the miracle of life, Dad bought two ewes that had been bred and who, in due course, produced a single lamb each—unlike our female cats who regularly produced large litters of kittens. Following an early morning walk around the farm on the spring morning that the first lamb was born, Dad came into the house to herald its arrival. “It’s a beautiful day in Fulton, California!” he proclaimed in a booming voice. “Come greet our new lamb!”

Mom, Gaynl, Mike, and I jumped out of bed and hurried to dress. We walked excitedly to the pen where the sheep were kept. Silent with wonder, we stood at the fence staring at the new arrival.

“Is it a boy lamb or a girl lamb?” Mike asked.

“It’s a little boy lamb,” Mom said. “A ram.”

“How do you know?” he asked.

“Because,” said Mom, “I saw his ram parts.” Silence ensued as we watched the little ram wobble tentatively testing his unsteady legs.

“So that’s what that means!” I said, breaking the silence.

“What what means?” Mom asked.

“O’er the ram parts we watched,” I said.

God bless the moon!

My oldest nephew, Kenneth, spent a lot of time with us when he was two to three years old. Afternoons, when I would put him down for a nap, I would read to him from a Hallmark nursery rhyme pop-up book given to me by my mother on my first Fathers’ Day. Kenny loved hearing the rhymes and pulling the tabs to see Jack jump over the candlestick, the mouse run up and down the clock, and turning the page to reveal a pop-up scene of a frightened Miss Muffett running from a menacing spider hanging over her head. His favorite, though, was making a smiling full moon rise in the night-time sky as I read: “I see the moon, the moon sees me; God bless the moon, and God bless me.”

Often, at dinner time, Kenny would “help” me in the kitchen with the preparations. I would place him on a stool opposite me on the other side of a counter separating the kitchen and the dining area. He would measure, pour, mix, and stir ingredients, crack eggs, and grate cheese. On one occasion, I was drinking a beer as we were preparing a favorite dish, macaroni and cheese. Kenny asked if he could have a taste of my beer. Recalling that my dad occasionally let me have a small amount of beer in a shot glass, I took a shot glass from the cupboard and poured some beer into it. Kenny picked up the shot glass and was about to drink when I stopped him. “Just a minute,” I said. “We have to have a toast.”

“What’s a toast?” he asked.

“It’s like making a wish,” I said. “Here. Hold up your glass.” He raised his glass. I clinked the rim of my glass against his. “Here’s to your health,” I said. We both drank, then went on with the macaroni and cheese preparations. A bit later, Kenny asked if he could have more beer. I poured another splash into his glass which he picked up. “Make a toast,” he said.

“No,” I said. “It’s your turn. You make the toast.”

Closing one eye and twisting up his mouth, I could see he was thinking hard as he continued to hold up his glass. Suddenly, shoving his glass toward me, he shouted, “God bless the moon!”

Thirty-some years later, when our family is together for holidays, celebrations, or other occasions at which a toast might be appropriate, a family member will offer the family’s traditional toast, “God bless the moon!”