Dad was a man of quick wit, a flair for vocal performance, an acute ear for the play of words, a fantastic memory for sound and rhythm. One of his most powerful gifts to me was his time and energy as he read to me and my friends. He read Winnie the Pooh, all of the Narnia series, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he read Watership Down, Shardik, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and many others. The highlights in my mind now were Tolkien and the wonderful series of books by CS Forester featuring Horatio Hornblower, a British naval officer during the Napoleonic wars.
Whether he was reading about rabbits, as in Watership Down, or about life aboard the HMS Indefatigable, dad always brought the mind of a performer to his reading. I don’t think that there would be many collections of professional stage actors that could bring a reading of a chapter to as much life as he could. He gave each character a unique voice and accent—voices and accents that didn’t mush or vary from night to night—with as many as 10 or 14 days between readings. It was obvious that he loved these sessions as much as we—my brotherly like band of friends-Nathan, Markus, Dylan, and myself. He held us rapt—and we sometimes managed to wheedle and whine as much as an hour-long performance from him—we were insatiable.
One of the magical things about these readings is that it put the band of us all into the same pages. This shared experience of the same literature, the same performances, called up the same imagery, adventures, characters—and we began to incorporate this reality into our daily lives. From a very early time—some of my earliest memories—being seven or eight years of age when he was reading The Hobbit to me—I remember exploring the wondrous landscape of English Hill, a few miles West of Sebastopol, where he lived when he first moved to Sonoma County in 1970. This landscape was peopled with mossy rocks which we called trolls, because, in Tolkien’s world, trolls stupid enough to be caught by the rays of the sun turned to stone. We mapped this territory on our return from these adventures, marked where we had passed through woods which became Mirkwood, landmarked trees that looked like Ents, drew in creeks which became the beautiful Anduin or the Entwash. Dad was as creative and excited by incorporating such fancies into our experience of external reality as I was. He rarely refused requests to retell or take on the character of Gandalf the Grey, Fiver, Kehaar, Long John, or Aslan. I believe this was a powerful and lifelong gift to me and my adopted brothers—allowing us to connect deeply with themes, symbols, and knowledge gained through literature. We learned about friendship, wonder, bravery, loyalty, love, magic, and beautiful language.
Many fathers read to their children, I try to read to my own—but very very few bring to it the passion and love that he did—a lesser percentage of those also integrate the fiction with everyday reality in the way that he did.
Another aspect of his character that was powerful at that time is what a friend of mine commented on recently–he listened to us children in a way that many adults didn’t—with respect and careful attention—leaving one feeling valued—but also challenged. At times this was frightening, at times this was empowering—but at all times it was somewhat unique—not many adults approach their relations with children with such a careful ear.
This careful ear, however, wasn’t always matched to a patient or gentle mouth—I, my childhood friends, and my sister can all recall times when our youthful transgressions earned verbal dressing-downs that would far eclipse Captain Haddock in full flight—his ammunition being volume, intensity, and carefully selected words. One found oneself boxed in by a mind that delighted in creating tight corners and exploring what was around them. This was not my dad at his finest—I wish that that hadn’t been part of his character, but it was. This has been an important lesson for me-not to seek perfection in myself or trust the appearance of it in others.
Another aspect of my father that I feel was a powerful influence was his interest in the world—not just his world of academics, poetics, philosophy, but his interest in my many new jobs, new interests, new friends—he seemed to suck up my new anecdotes, vocabulary, and changing understanding of the world. He asked questions, incorporated new terms, and elements of my accounts into our conversations. I think this was partly due to his writer’s thirst for genuine and specific knowledge of how the world works, how people move through territory and come to see reality in new and different ways. This interest of his led me to see each new job and experience I had with a curiosity and enjoyment that others frequently seem to lack.