Leaves of Grass

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘whitman-leaves-of-grass-2Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s collection of free-verse poems in tribute to America, was first published in 1855.

I was introduced to Whitman by my friend, Richard. I was twenty. Richard was forty. Richard had a degree in literature from Bard College. I thought he was brilliant; he became a sort of intellectual godfather and mentor. Together, we read Shakespeare, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn. We listened to classical music from his large collection of LPs. We went to the theater. We went to the movies. We saw all of the Marcello Mastroianni films. It was a heady time that fanned the flames of my passion for the arts and humanities.

In his LP collection was a recording of Ed Begley reading a selection of poems from Leaves of Grass. The sound of Begley’s voice and the beauty of the poetry captured my interest and imagination. I bought a Signet Classics edition of Leaves for seventy-five cents. I marked the poems from the Begley recording and read them countless times. I could recite my favorite poems from memory. Richard gave me the recording which I kept until 1992 when I made what might now be considered an ill-advised decision to get rid of my vinyl records.

Whitman had a profound influence on my life and on my intellectual development. In the “Who goes there” canto of “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes:

To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

That phrase and the thought it expresses became my raison d’être for writing: “not… to impart knowledge to others,” as Judith Guest says of writers, “… [but] to inform [myself].” I have written many times about the converging objects of the universe and their meaning to me. As a spiritual person, Whitman offers me great wisdom and insight.

I sought at one time to write poetry. Curious to know how it “feels” to be a poet, I thought copying Leaves of Grass by hand would help me understand. Every morning, for two months, I transcribed Whitman’s poems into a notebook. The activity became my morning writing and meditation practice. It was a fascinating experience that I could not sustain. The rest of my life called me to attention.

Whether or not I will ever become a “poet” remains an unanswered question. What I gained from the experience and continue to get from Whitman is a sense of the beauty of language and the unlimited potential of poetic expression.

Last week I bought a Kindle Fire as a birthday gift to myself. I thought having Leaves of Grass on my Kindle would be a good thing. Finding a copy was easy enough. What about an audio transcription, I wondered. Just as easily found, the best part of the search was uncovering an audiobook edition of the Ed Begley recording. It was like meeting an old and dear friend after many years of separation.

To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.


‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘cooking_with_kids_600I love to cook. My grandmother taught me how to cook. She thought boys should know how to sew on a button and how to cook. The first thing she taught me to prepare was a casserole she called her “Chi-nee” noodle dish. Easy to put together, I made it at least a hundred and fifty-three times. Though I no longer eat meat, canned peas, or Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, I still remember the recipe. Gramma’s banana bread was a favorite. She showed me, step by step, how she made it. What else is there to do with overripe bananas?

My interest in cooking continued into adulthood. As I became more experienced, I discovered the joy of experimentation and the wonder of new tastes and textures.

Julia Child entered my life in the late 60s. A born again francophile with an undergraduate degree in French, it was love at first sight. Julia visited my home, as she visited the homes of a multitude of adoring fans, for nearly ten years as The French Chef. In the 70s and 80s she arrived in different incarnations: Julia Child & Company, Julia Child & More Company, and Dinner at Julia’s.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking I and II are classics that can be read cover to cover. I bought both JC & Co. cookbooks, From Julia Child’s Kitchen, and others, the titles of which I no longer remember. I made pâté, Hollandaise sauce, soufflés, quiches, and quenelles. I loved replicating Julia’s recipes and processes. I enjoyed the pursuit of ingredients and tools. In the 70s, both ingredients and tools were difficult to come by. Few supermarket produce sections carried arugula and Williams Sonoma was hardly a household name.

My Life in France is a charming memoir of the life Julia and Paul Child shared in France and of Julia’s introduction to la cuisine française. Noel Riley Fitch’s Appetite for Life is an absorbing biography that explores the forces, events, and experiences that shaped the life of Julia Child making her the extraordinary woman she was.

When Julia Child died on Friday, August 13, 2004, I felt as if I had lost a family member. The following morning, The Los Angeles Times Calendar section carried a feature article by Times Staff Writer Elaine Woo. The article spoke lovingly of Julia as a “towering figure in the culinary world” who “woke Americans up to the pleasures of cooking.” The article concludes with a quotation that is quintessentially Julia: “To me, the kitchen has never stopped being a place just full of possibilities and pleasures.”

Possibilities and pleasures. The kitchen. The ingredients. What would Julia do?

Indeed. What would Julia do? I created a poster that reminds me of the possibilities and pleasures of my kitchen.

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘wwjd-6x4-framed


Z is for Zelda Thayer

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘a-to-z-letters-zis for Zelda Thayer.

Mrs. Thayer was the librarian at Sonoma Valley High School. I was hired to replace her after she retired. I was hired. I did not replace her.

A loving, white-haired, grandmotherly woman, Mrs. Thayer loved kids of all ages. She loved being a school librarian. Her long career in the district began as a kindergarten teacher. At the high school, she enjoyed years of welcoming former kindergarten students as high school students.

Doing everything in her power to provide a smooth transition and to make my high school librarian experience successful, Mrs. Thayer left copious notes on library procedures and teaching advice. The spring semester before I took over in the fall, I volunteered one day a week in the library. Mrs. Thayer was a patient and supportive mentor.

With a newly minted graduate degree in library science, I planned on a career in community college or university libraries. School librarianship was not my interest.  Library jobs of any kind were scarce in 1972. Accepting the offer from Sonoma Valley High School put me first in my class with a job following graduation.

The problem of not wanting to be a school librarian was compounded by the lack of education and practical experience required for credentialing. A loophole in the credentialing law provided a way around the credential obstacle.

Hanging on by my fingernails, I was grateful that Mrs. Thayer’s mentoring kept me from appearing altogether clueless.

After she left Sonoma Valley High School, I didn’t see her again. When I think of her and of her kindness to me, I am hopeful she went to her grave without knowing how much I disliked being a school librarian.

After five years, I found a community college library director job. I succeeded a woman whose name was Alpha. A good sign.



Y is for Yolo

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘a-to-z-letters-yis for Yolo.

Driving from Redding to Bakersfield last week, a Yolo County boundary sign caught my attention triggering a cascade of memories  reaching back more than sixty years.

My father, Clyde Kenneth Crook, was killed in a train wreck when I was seven years old. Though my memories of him are sketchy, two memories standout.

A salesman for Old Home Bakers, makers of Betsy Ross Bread, in Sacramento, Dad was often called out at odd hours. One evening, he had to drive to a barbecue restaurant in Yolo County. He took my sister and me with him. I sat in the front seat and Gaynl sat in the back seat of his black Chevy company coupe. Dad parked in front of the restaurant and left us alone in the car.

On either side of the restaurant’s door were picture windows framing large rotisseries each with six spits skewering racks of succulent spare ribs. Slathered with tangy barbecue sauce and dripping fat, the ribs turned seductively in the glow of the rotisserie flames. The tantalizing aroma of barbecued pork permeated the atmosphere. Despite locked doors and rolled up windows the smell of barbecue licked the glass and slithered into the car.

On her knees in the back seat, Gaynl fixed her eyes on the restaurant door. I rummaged through the contents of the glove box in search of fold up replicas of Betsy Ross Bread trucks.

Dad returned to the car with a napkin in each hand. The napkins contained a barbecued spare rib wrapped in waxed paper. He handed one to Gaynl and one to me. We attacked the ribs like cats going after catnip.

“Daddy,” I said as he pulled into the driveway at home, “do you have any of those fold up Betsy Ross trucks?”

“They’re in the glove box,” he said. “One for you and one for your sister. And don’t get barbecue sauce on the whole stack.”

At the Irish Tavern, Chet, the bartender, always gave me a bag of Top Hat potato chips. The chips were in a thick waxed paper bag. A red square with “Top Hat Potato Chips” and a shiny black top hat printed on the bag form a vivid memory. Dad drank a beer and talked to Chet. I sat on a bar stool enjoying the crisp crunch of big, salty potato chips. Three or four men drank beers or highballs, smoked cigarettes, and played shuffleboard. I wanted to play, but I wasn’t tall enough to see over the edge of the shuffleboard table.

X is for Xyla

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘a-to-z-letters-xis for Xyla.

“My real name is Xyla,” said Dawn.

“Really?” I said. “Like xylophone? Your mother must have had a thing about names beginning with Z.”

“Just kidding,” said Dawn. “I thought you might need a name for Z.” We laughed.

“I was wrong,” I said to Dawn the next afternoon. “Xylophone begins with X, not with Z.”

“I know,” she said.

“I wanted to write about you,” I said, “and Xyla makes it possible to include you in the A to Z Blogging Challenge.”

Dawn is Candace’s daughter. Candace was the victim of a horrific tragedy last June. Dealing with your mother’s death is hard enough. Dealing with the senseless murder of your mother is an experience beyond comprehension.

Dawn is the embodiment of grace in the face of tragedy and heart rending grief. A spiritual woman, Dawn  pulled herself together and gathered a support system of like-minded friends about her. She moves forward, day by day, perhaps, some days, minute by minute.

Dawn and her husband, Keith, put their lives on hold to care for Bob, Candace’s husband who, though badly wounded, survived the attack. From the start, Dawn kept family and friends informed of Bob’s condition and progress by posting messages on Bob’s Facebook page.

Waiting until Bob was well enough to participate, Dawn organized a memorial service for Candace that was a fitting and beautiful celebration of her mother’s life.

Studying to be an energy healer, Dawn is calm and mindful of her presence. Working daily to preserve her sense of peace, Dawn focuses on the manifestation of positive energy. She is an amazing woman.

I didn’t know Dawn before this event occurred. Just as I am certain the Universe planned and effected my connection with Bob, I feel confident that a part of the plan was to bring Dawn into my life. It is an honor to know her.

W is for William

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘a-to-z-letters-wis for William.

William VanderWerff became my dad when I was ten years old. He married my mother following the death of my father. I called him “Dad” from the beginning, not because I was told I should, but because he was the Dad in the family.

One of our first father-son encounters involved the garage door. I was sent out to put bikes and toys into the garage. In a fit of infantile anger, I threw up the garage door causing it to stick so I could not pull it down.

“The garage door is stuck,” Mom said, implicating me as the cause with a hard-eyed stare and tight-set lips. Dad went out to un-stick it.

“How did the door get stuck?” Dad asked when he came back into the house. The ensuing discussion between us produced the (not mutual) understanding that it happened because I was mad at being asked to do something I did not want to do.

“Don’t you think you were being impudent?” he asked.

“No,” I said, having no idea what impudent means or a ten-year-old brain mature enough to think of asking.

“Impudent means being a smart aleck and not thinking about the feelings of others,” he explained. “Now, I think you need to go stand in the hall over there for fifteen minutes and consider whether or not you were impudent.”

A non-violent man, Dad did not believe in corporal punishment, unlike Mom who, with a stick, spanked first and might ask questions later. Standing in the hall became the standard of punishment, followed by a lecture of interminable duration—or so it seemed. Consigned to my post in the hall for countless infractions and facing yet another lecture, I often thought I would prefer a beating.

Not educated beyond high school and with no credentials in child development or child psychology, Dad had an innate sensibility about what was appropriate and when. The themes of his lectures were consistent which had more to do with my lack of comprehension than with his ability to make a point. Each time a theme was expressed, he tailored it to fit the situation.

“Use your initiative,” he would say. “Initiative means doing the right thing at the right time without being told.” It wasn’t only a matter of telling me to use my initiative. When Dad observed that I did something he considered a good example of initiative, he was quick to offer positive reinforcement. “You used your initiative,” he’d say. “Good for you.”

Thinking was a major theme throughout my childhood and adolescence. “You have to think about what you’re doing,” Dad said innumerable times. But it was more than simply “thinking about what you’re doing.” Identifying the possible actions, evaluating choices for action, and recognizing the consequence of each action were the critical elements of the decision making process. “Think about what you’re doing,” Dad would say, “and consider the consequence of each act.” He was patient and went through the steps of the decision making process each time he gave me the lecture. He stressed the importance of evaluating the choice of action in any situation, putting particular emphasis on accepting responsibility for the choice made. “Think!” he’d say. “Use your head for something besides a hat rack.”

“Do the work. Work makes you free” was another common theme. If you’re working, you’re not free, I thought. It didn’t make sense and I thought it sounded stupid. Freedom was always more important to me than work. It took a long time for the wisdom of Dad’s work-freedom admonishment to sink in.

Looking back on my childhood and adolescent years, Dad looms large. He was the dad I needed. His influence blessed my life.

V is for Virginia Danzy

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘a-to-z-letters-vis for Virginia Danzy.

Mrs. Danzy was my seventh grade homeroom teacher. The first teacher of the first class on the first day of junior high school. Statuesque, middle-aged, with beautifully coiffed graying hair, and always smartly dressed. It was love at first sight.

I spent the first three periods of the day with Mrs. Danzy that year: social studies, seventh grade orientation, literature and spelling. She had a gift for connecting students with just the right book. She introduced me to stories set in different countries and cultures that captured my interest and attention. I can never forget the Landmark Biography series: Meet Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Bell Invents the Telephone, Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia, and many others.

A high point of the seventh grade with Mrs. Danzy was a Saturday field trip to San Francisco. We visited the California Adademy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, Fleishhacker Zoo (now the San Francisco Zoo), and Chinatown. Mrs. Danzy was the perfect tour guide. Allowed to explore the sites on our own, she was always close by to answer questions or to suggest places and experiences we might otherwise miss.

I was saddened at the end of that wonderful seventh grade year to learn Mrs. Danzy would not return in the fall. She had accepted a teaching position in another part of the state. Two years later, in the ninth grade, my mother suggested I buy a year book for Mrs. Danzy. I tracked down students from my seventh grade homeroom class and asked them to sign it. Later, I shared with my classmates Mrs. Danzy’s thank you note expressing her joy and pleasure in receiving the yearbook. Once, when I was in college, I visited Mrs. Danzy. She showed me the yearbook and reminded me again how much it meant to her.

Several students from Mrs. Danzy’s seventh grade homeroom became lifelong friends. At our fifty year high school reunion last summer, we enjoyed reminiscing about our school years together and recalled Mrs. Danzy with fondness.

Mrs. Danzy traveled all over the world and encouraged my curiosity and interest in travel. She believed seeing the world and experiencing other cultures was the best education. “Travel is the best way to understand the world and the people who live in it,” she said. “Travel fosters understanding that leads to tolerance of differences and appreciation of the diversity of humankind.”

I believed her. I still do.



U is for Ulysses

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘a-to-z-letters-uis for Ulysses.

Miss Lois Baumgartner, my ninth grade English teacher, introduced me to Ulysses. Ulysses is the Roman name of Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca and a hero of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.  Barely five feet tall, matronly, with a shock of curly white hair, Miss Baumgartner was an epic force in my life.

Greek and Roman mythology came to life in Miss Baumgartner’s class. The stories of  gods and goddesses, subjects of human passions and caprices, fascinated me. I memorized their Greek and Latin names, their realms, symbols, and signs.

Besides Greek and Roman mythology, we read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and a condensed version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We kept a notebook for each work. The notebook included a record of “new” words we defined and used in a sentence. A love of literature and a desire to develop a  good vocabulary and  to use it effectively are chief among the many gifts Miss Baumgartner gave me.

Memorizing twenty lines from Romeo and Juliet was mandatory. Act II, Scene 3 begins with Friar Laurence’s “grey-eyed morn” soliloquy. I memorized the whole scene. I can still recite most it it.

Grammar was part of everything we did in Miss Baumgartner’s class. We diagrammed sentences. We did weekly dictation. Miss Baumgartner read a sentence. We wrote the sentence, underlined the subject and predicate, and identified the sentence as either simple, compound, or complex.

There were no discipline problems in Miss Baungartner classes. She never raised her voice. She believed good posture supported good learning. I can still hear her saying, “Remember your spine in ’59.”

The queen of my pantheon of favorite and most influential teachers, Miss Baumgartner made an indelible impression on my life.

T is for Travis

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘a-to-z-letters-tis for Travis.

If a remake of The Andy Griffith Show were made today, my grandson, Travis, would be cast as Opie. He’s cute. He’s funny. He’s ten years old. He’s what I see when I think of John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Barefoot Boy.”

Travis is smart. His mother might say “too smart for his own good.” I’m his grandfather. I don’t have to go there. I’m impressed by what he knows and how he knows it. “Papa Dennis,” he said one morning last January, “the temperature’s below zero in Chicago.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“It was on the news.”

“Really,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s the first time the temperature dropped below zero in 711 days.”

Mr. Personality, Travis engages everyone in conversation. If he knows you, he knows your interests. He knows I enjoy travel and that I was in New York City last September. Last night we were seated next to each other in the back seat of the car. “Papa Dennis,” he said, “I’ve been to New York; but, I haven’t been to New York City.”

“Maybe you’ll have a chance to go there sometime,” I said.

“I read on the Internet there’s a lot you can do for free there,” he said. “I’d like to explore that.”

If the conversation is about football or baseball, be prepared. He knows players, numbers, scores, statistics.

Enthusiastic, in the moment, up for anything, he’s pure of heart and guileless. Blond hair, blue eyes, freckles, he is The Barefoot Boy.

Outward sunshine, inward joy:
Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!

‘ ” ‘

S is for Susan and Sharon

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘a-to-z-letters-sis for Susan and Sharon.

I wanted daughters. When Susan was born, I was so excited and happy I nearly leaped over the delivery table. “We got a girl,” I shouted.

Forty years ago, we didn’t know the gender of a baby before its birth. Men were just beginning to participate in the births of their children. I didn’t make that decision until Mary was on the gurney being pushed into the delivery room. “Are you coming in?” asked Dr. Johnson.

“Yes,” I said.

Three years later, Sharon was born. “We got a little girl,” I shouted to Mary. My life was was blessed with the two beautiful daughters I wanted.

I loved being a daddy. Along with all of the usual little girl stuff, Susan and Sharon played soccer and volleyball, enthused through cheer leading, and suffered through piano lessons. Summers, we did swimming lessons and library reading club. “Let’s make cookies,” I’d say when I ran out of other things to do with them.

Midway through the normal, happy childhood I planned for my daughters, I changed the plan. Dealing with a gay dad was not an experience I planned to give them. Susan was fourteen and Sharon was eleven. Mary and I divorced. A new job in another town two hours away meant leaving the girls to face both emotional and physical abandonment.

To talk about Susan and Sharon without talking about the quality of our relationship today is impossible. Acceptance defines the relationship I enjoy with my adult daughters. And Susan and Sharon were—and continue to be—my teachers. Our relationship is open and honest. We don’t hide, we don’t cover up, we don’t make excuses. We are free of emotional baggage and respectful of each others individuality.

I wanted daughters. My life is blessed with Susan and Sharon