The Water Man Never Knocks

The water from our well smelled like rotten eggs and tasted terrible. We bought bottled water for drinking and cooking.

Bottled water was delivered once a week in five gallon glass bottles that we put on a ceramic water crock dispenser. In 1968, two five gallon bottles cost a little over two dollars a week.

Starving college students surviving on the G.I. Bill and part-time jobs, we didn’t always have cash to pay the water man.

Thursdays were water delivery days. I was at home one Thursday morning when I heard a truck coming up our gravel road. I looked out the window and saw the water delivery truck. We were four weeks behind in our payment and I had no money.

I have to hide. I started out the door to hide in the shop next to the garage. Wait. If I dart out the door, he’ll see me. I turned in circles trying to figure out what to do. I know! I’ll hide in the closet. What am I thinking? That’s so obvious. He’ll know I’m there. I’ll hide in the bath tub behind the shower curtain.

I got behind the shower curtain as I heard the screen door open and the water man walk into the kitchen. The first bottle hit the floor. The empty bottle was removed from the water cooler. Water from the new bottle glugged into the cooler. Silence. What is he doing?

The water man walked into the bathroom! My heart stopped. I gasped and struggled to hold my breath. He unzipped his trousers. Splash. Flush. Zip. He walked out of the bathroom. I continued to hold my breath.

Footsteps. The screen door slammed. My heart pounded. I gasped for air. Gravel crunched under the truck’s tires as the water man drove away.

He had no idea of the terror he created for me. Or, of the terror I might have created for him.

Working the Shot

In photography, composition is everything. Good composition means an identifiable subject and background, balance, point of view, and simplicity. It takes time to frame a shot that meets my criteria for good composition. Sometimes I have good results and sometimes not so good.

Sometimes I am surprised. I used to be surprised. When I shot film, I had to wait for the film to be processed before I could see the results. With digital photography there are no surprises because it is possible to see your shot as soon as it’s taken.

It is incorrect to say there are no surprises with digital photography. I am an amateur photographer and I am constantly surprised; but, as far as composition goes, I minimize the element of surprise.

Salisbury Cathedral

I shot this photograph of Salisbury Cathedral with a 35mm point and shoot. The result was a surprise even though much effort went into the photograph’s composition.

In April 1996, I was in England with a tour group I hosted. Having visited Salisbury Cathedral several times, I did not go inside for the cathedral tour. There was construction underway and I wasn’t interested in seeing the clutter. Instead, I left the group and walked out into the cathedral close.

It was a gray day that threatened rain. I wandered to the east end of the cathedral and up a couple of steps through a rock wall to the level of the road.

Turning around to face the cathedral, I was struck again by its majesty. Salisbury Cathedral supports the tallest cathedral spire in England. Along the road side of the rock wall I’d crossed there was a bed of daffodils in bloom. I framed a shot in my mind. I wanted the height of the cathedral with the daffodils at its base. The arch of the barren tree balanced the composition.

I looked through the camera’s view finder trying to capture the view I had in mind. Nothing worked. I got down on my knees and still could not compose the shot I wanted.

I noticed an empty parking space against the wall. I knelt in the parking space and tried once more to frame the shot. I couldn’t get the daffodils and the spire’s height. I got as low as I could. Still unable to get my shot, I lay down in the parking space and framed the shot again. Everything I wanted was in the frame. I snapped the shutter.

When the photos were processed, I was pleased with the result. I had worked the shot and got my photograph.

I had the photograph enlarged and framed. It hangs in my studio to remind me that good composition is not only subject and background, balance, point of view, and simplicity, it is also work.

Little Lord Fauntleroy

My grandmother gave me a copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy.It was a sunny May afternoon in Sacramento several days before my tenth birthday. Gramma could never wait for the actual day. If she had a gift to give, she had to give it. We were on the front porch of her house on 4th Avenue. She sat in a rocking chair and I sat on a stool in front of her. “Here’s your birthday present,” she said, holding out the package toward me.

I opened the gift wrapped package and found the most striking book I’d ever seen. Through the clear plastic dust jacket I could see the stunning color plate on the cover. The Charles Scribner’s edition has beautiful color illustrations and pen and ink drawings by Reginald Birch.

I always have a reason for choosing a book to give as a gift. I wonder what my grandmother’s reason was for giving me Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Gramma was born in 1877. Fauntleroy was first published in 1886. She may have read the book as a young girl and wanted to share the story with me. Maybe she gave me the book because of similarities between Cedric (Fauntleroy) and me. Both of us lost a parent at a young age.

As an adult, the gift of a book from my grandmother is a curiosity. I don’t recall books in Gramma’s house. Newspapers and magazines are the extent of the reading she did. The thought of my grandmother going into a bookstore to shop for a book is even more curious.

How did she get to the bookstore? Gramma didn’t drive and depended on public transportation. My aunt may have taken her. Or, maybe she asked my aunt to buy the book for her.

I imagine my grandmother going downtown on the bus to Levinson’s Books. I know it was Levinson’s because there is a Levinson’s sticker inside the back cover of the book.

“I’m looking for a book for my grandson. He’s going to be 10 years old.”

The clerk may have asked questions to help him or her form a suggestion. “Does he play sports or do outdoor activities?”

“He’s not that kind,” I can hear Gramma say. “He’s quiet. He’s kind to old people. He’s just a nice boy.”

Whatever their conversation, I received a beautiful gift that I still have.

The book is worn and worse for wear. Years ago, I loaned it to a younger cousin who treated it badly. I was glad to have it back even in its battered state.

On the other hand, I loaned Fauntleroy to Miss Evers, a sixth grade teacher at my school, who read it to her class. Her thank you note is clipped inside the cover.

I haven’t read Fauntleroy since I was in junior high school. Once in a while he winks at me from his place on the shelf. I take him down and turn slowly through the pages to enjoy the drawings and time with Gramma.

Midnight in Paris

In Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, Gil has a fantasy about being transported back in time to Paris in the 1920s. Call me Gil. My Paris fantasy began with reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in 1965.

NPR’s “All Things Considered” was my favorite news program when I was on sabbatical at the University of Southern California in 1981-82.  I listened to it evenings driving home from the campus.

One evening there was an interview with a woman who had written a book about her parents and their life in Paris. The parents, the products of wealthy families, were disillusioned with life in the U.S. in the 20s and made a decision to move with their three children to Paris.

The author described growing up around her parents’ friends who included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso, to name only a few. The story captured my interest. I wanted to purchase the book immediately; but, because I was driving, I was unable to write down either the author’s name or the title of the book. By the time I got home, I had forgotten both. For a librarian with excellent reference skills, that shouldn’t be a problem, I thought.

I spent the next twelve years—on and off—searching for that book. One evening in 1994, I turned on the television. The program that came on was A&E’s Biography featuring the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I stopped to watch before changing the channel. A woman was talking about her relationship to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The woman, Honoria Murphy Donnelly, daughter of Sara and Gerald Murphy, was the author of Sara and Gerald: The Villa America and Beyond. The book I had been searching for twelve years. At last I was able to acquire a copy even though it was then out of print. I read the book which I enjoyed thoroughly.

Everybody was So Young, Amanda Vail’s biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy, fueled my fascination with the Murphy’s and the expatriate American artists who lived in Paris in the 20s and 30s.

In Appetite for Life, Noel Riley Fitch’s biography of Julia Child, I learned that Paul Child lived in Paris in the 20s and was tangentially connected to that group. Later, Julia and he met Gerald and Sara in Paris.

My friend John and I went to see Midnight in Paris. I “got” it immediately. The story is my Paris fantasy. After the movie, I told John about my fascination with Paris in the 20s and the search for the Murphys.

“My mother’s uncle was Henry, “Mike,” Strater,” John said. “He was a painter who lived in Paris in the 20s and he was a friend of Hemingway’s. He painted his portrait.”

When I got home, I researched Henry Strater. Strater did two portraits of Hemingway. One of the portraits was used as the cover art for the dust jacket of Carlos Baker’s Hemingway: A Life Story.

“Six degrees of separation!” I shouted into the phone when John answered. “Through you, I am connected to people I have been fascinated with for 45 years. I am experiencing Midnight in Paris!”


William VannderWerff

My dad was a health food nut. Long before there was anything like a health food craze, Dad blazed his own trail.

Carrot juice was Dad’s answer to good health. He lugged 25 pound bags of carrots home from the market and we drank carrot juice for breakfast. He created a special concoction from carrots, celery, flax meal, pumpkin seed meal, and lecithin. I actually liked the carrot juice. My brother tolerated it. My sister poured it out of her bedroom window into the flower bed.

I have a vegetable juicer and made carrot juice on and off for years. When I became aware of the whole food movement, I gave up the juicer because I was throwing out “tons” of pulp and fiber from the vegetables I juiced. I now have a VitaMix. I make vegetable smoothies and drink juice, pulp and all.

My mother made carrot and raisin salad that I adored as a child. Though I still love it, I haven’t eaten or made it in years because I no longer eat mayonnaise and haven’t found a substitute. There probably is a substitute; but, I am a purist. If I can’t have the real thing, I’d rather not have it at all.

An avid Julia Child fan, I watched every episode of The French Chef and most of Julia’s later programs. I have copies of many of her cookbooks. Adding a touch of Julia to anything I cooked is a challenge and a delight. I like to steam baby carrots. Julia tosses steamed baby carrots in butter and splashes them with brandy. “Dad!” said my young daughter. “Did you put booze on the carrots?”

I am a health nut on my own. I come by that distinction honestly. I choose to eat a plant-based diet that works well for me and that I enjoy. At a recent Thanksgiving dinner, a family member remarked, “When all of us are gone because we ate this unhealthy Thanksgiving food, your Thanksgivings are going to be pretty lonely, Dennis.”

Personal Blog Challenge Update

Sunday is a day off from blogging; but, I decided to make a change in the focus and organization of my personal blog challenge.

I began the challenge with a plan to write 26 blog posts on each of 26 themes. Poetry is first theme I chose. To date, I’ve written 14 posts on 14 poems that are significant to me.

To keep the challenge fresh, I decided to mix it up. Instead of devoting an entire month to a single theme, I plan to write a post on a different theme each day. This offers more variety and keeps the challenge from becoming drudgery.

Following the blog challenge is easy. You can subscribe to my blog and receive each new post by email when it is posted. To subscribe, look for the “Subscribe to derwerffblogg by email” block in the upper right corner of the blog. Enter your email address in the box and click “Subscribe to derwerffblogg.” A notice will appear that says “An email was just sent to confirm your subscription. Please find the email now and click ‘Confirm Follow’ to start subscribing.” Clicking “Confirm Follow” will open a web page that says your subscription has been activated.

You can comment on each blog post as you receive it by clicking on the “Comment” button and writing your comment. I am pleased to hear from readers and I try to respond to all comments.

Thank you for your interest in derwerffblogg.

Flunking a Nice Boy Out of School

I heard John Ciardi speak when I was a freshman in college. At the time he was poetry editor and contributor at Saturday Review. His reading of “On Flunking a Nice Boy out of School” impressed me. When I happened to come across the poem some years later as a teacher, I photocopied it and kept it under the glass on the top of my desk.The most striking line in the poem is about having the student’s work rather than his excuses. I don’t like excuses. I don’t like listening to them and I hate worse to make them. Why not tell the truth?

I shared Ciardi’s poem over the years with a few students who I felt were not living up to their potential. As a matter of fact, I have used the poem to tell on myself.

I was chair of my college’s curriculum and instruction council. At times the workload was overwhelming and I simply did not want to do it. My dilemma was not wanting to make excuses to the council members for not being prepared on time. Rather than to offer excuses, I confessed. “I have no excuse,” I said. I an email, I told them I felt I was the boy who Ciardi flunked out of school. I attached a copy of the poem to my email. I didn’t receive any feedback from the email and the work was finally accomplished.

Making excuses is a common attribute of human behavior. Everyone makes an excuse at one time or another. I wonder why we feel threatened about telling the truth. The need for an excuse is a matter of choosing to do one thing over another. Even though what needs to be done is important work, we will choose to do something else that may be more pleasant. Then we make up “dog ate my homework” stories about why we didn’t do what we were supposed to do or said we would do.

Flunking a student is a dilemma for a teacher who is faced with both duty and disappointment. A student capable not only of doing the work but of excelling at it cannot be allowed to get by with an excuse. “I’d sooner have it from the brassiest lumpkin in pimpledom, but have it, than all these martyred repentances from you.”

Wandering Lonely as a Cloud

William Wordsworth

After the dark cold of winter, the sight of golden daffodils tossing their sprightly heads in the breeze is a harbinger of spring.

In April 1996, I organized tour to England for Fr. Edgar Parrott, an Episcopal priest and friend, who wanted to offer his congregation an opportunity to explore the roots of the Anglican faith by visiting cathedrals and churches in the south of England.

Thirty people joined the two-week tour that stopped in London, Brighton, Bath, Oxford, and Cambridge. We visited Canterbury, Winchester, Chichester, Wells, Coventry, and Ely cathedrals as well as numerous village churches and historical sites.

Shepherding 30 people on and off of airplanes and tour buses, in and out of hotels, handling baggage logistics, and managing a tour itinerary is hard work. By the time we reached the second week of the tour, I was ready for time alone.

At Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford, I let the group go with our tour guide while I wandered off across the road and down a path into a wood. The peace and quiet of the wood was inviting. I walked along the path listening to the soothing sound of the breeze through the trees.

At length, I came to a bridge that crossed a quiet stream. The reflection of the sky and trees on the glossy surface of the still water was magical. As I looked across the stream, my eyes were delighted by hundreds of sprightly daffodils. The sight took away my breath. In that instant, I stood with William Wordsworth coming upon a host of golden daffodils. I’ve never seen daffodils anywhere that compare with the beauty and profusion of those in England.

To freeze the moment, I raised my camera, composed a shot, and snapped the shutter. The photograph of the daffodils at Stratford is the perfect souvenir. I had the photograph enlarged, printed, and framed to hang in my home. I have only to look at it to recall the bliss of that solitary moment.

Lifting and Leaning

Miss Baumgartner read Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Lifting and Leaning” to my ninth grade English class no doubt to illustrate a point. I brought the poem home to my parents. Mom and Dad liked the poem so much they bought a copy of Best Loved Poems of the American People that became one of my family’s best loved books

I memorized “Lifting and Leaning” and recited all or pieces of it often. I was thrilled that Mom asked me to recite “Lifters and Leaners” as part of a program at church.

When I was in school, learning a poem meant memorizing. The poetry we learned in those days was didactic, intended to teach a moral lesson. “Lifting and Leaning” is an example of such poetry.

In sixth grade we were given a new poem at the beginning of each month to learn (i.e., to memorize) and to recite before the class by the end of the month. Of those poems, I recall titles only of Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem,” and a nonsense poem by Charles Edward Carryl called “The Plaint of the Camel.”

Memorizing poetry and being able to recite it dramatically was important to me. Impressed by anyone who recited poetry, I tried to imitate them. I loved the sound of poetic language and learned many poems on my own trying to fit them into the conversation wherever I could. Memorizing was easier then; and, I can recite many of those poems to this day.

We read Romeo and Juliet in Miss Baumgartner’s class. Required to memorize and to recite 20 lines in front of the class, I memorized the whole of Act II, Scene 3 in which Romeo asks Friar Laurence to perform their marriage. Anyone want to hear me recite Shakespeare?


Robert Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate, read Horace’s ode “To Licinius” on the PBS Newshour shortly after 9/11. Horace’s counsel to Licinius is to pursue the middle way, a path of evenmindedness and equanimity. The middle ground and compromise are far from what is heard in today’s angry ad hominum public discourse.

What strikes me about Horace’s ode to Licinius is his counsel that things will not always be bad. Apollo picking up his lyre to awaken “the music sleeping upon the strings” is an image of hope.

“Expect reversals,” Horace says. Change is constant. The way open today may not be open tomorrow. There is as much to be learned from way closed as way open. Opportunity favors a willing spirit and an open mind. Remain resolute, but keep a short sail in strong winds to avoid the risk of being thrown off course. In other words, be flexible. Those who do best choose the middle way.