My third year at Seven Hills School I was promoted to teacher at $5 an hour—and co-taught the five-day preschool, again with Karl. It was a rough start, though. As an aide, I’d heard the teachers around us complain that Karl’s kids were out of control, and I’d resolved to do my best that fall to remedy the situation.

Both Karl and I were too permissive, I recognized, neither of us adept at wielding authority. But I thought that one of the ways we could manage the kids better was to create more structure for them, routines they could become familiar with. I also knew that structure gave children a sense of security. Karl balked at my efforts to establish routines, however. While he threw himself wholeheartedly into teaching, he resisted anything that felt to him like regimentation, and with the two of us working at cross-purposes, in the end I had to give up. Unfettered spontaneity ruled the day, with the result that the class—now our class—was loud and chaotic and yes, often out of control.

  “Luckily,” as I wrote Ella, “Karl and I have fewer children this year—16—and a larger repertoire of activities, more materials—I’ve been on a game-designing binge—and more help. In addition to a crafts teacher and movement instructor, we have a parent to supervise gardening work and play. Even the weather has been a boon. Concord ordinarily has colder winters than Berkeley, but this year the warm weather has persisted through November. And we haven’t had one day when we’ve had to keep the kids in from the playground because of rain! Only a teacher can appreciate what that means.”



Around this time I went back into therapy through the county—with Helen, a psychiatric social worker like my mother—seeing her once a week for free. She was a former nun who had left the convent after falling in love with a priest, though they didn’t wind up together—and as with Drs. C and F, she was assigned to me. Coincidentally, Harry wound up seeing her too. I wrote:

“I’m afraid I’m too fragile for therapy, that it mobilizes more pain and rage and self-doubt that I can stand at this point in my life. Last night I couldn’t stop the flood of feelings that broke through after my session with Helen. Sleep only briefly interrupted it.

“Last week I’d felt comfortable with her—and grateful—by the end of the session. I’d thought she might be someone I could work with. But yesterday’s session left me feeling discouraged. I think she felt it too because she said at the end, almost apologetically, “Well, one step at a time.” I didn’t feel any relief afterwards—or that anything had been accomplished. Instead I felt annoyed by her suggestion that wanting something from my mother emotionally was what was keeping me in her home.

“Later in the evening, wrathful feelings started crowding out other thoughts. I thought of the circumstances, internal and external, that have kept me a prisoner in this house. I wanted to scream back at Helen, ‘You think I wanted to come home when I left L.A.? You think I didn’t know what would happen to me? I hated coming home. I dreaded the toll it would take on me, knowing from previous experience that it would. It was like entering a black hole and not knowing if I would ever find my way out again.’ I was in a rage at the time—at all the circumstances that put me in the position of having to go to a home that was no home, at myself for being so ineffectual, so helpless, that I had to crawl back there. As in the movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, I felt I should be taken out and shot.”



This is a scene I imagined for a movie–a spinoff of an actual conversation I had one evening with Arlen and Harry:


Speaker 1: Anybody see The Hellstrom Chronicle on TV last night?

Speaker 2: That’s the one about insects, isn’t it?

Speaker 3: One of those Roach That Ate Rhode Island movies?

Speaker 1: No, it’s a documentary—about how insects are going to take over the


Speaker 2: I thought they already had. I’ve got armies of Argentine ants marching

out of my potted plants, my toaster, even my steam iron.

Speaker 3: How do you know they’re Argentine? Do they flash their passports?

Speaker 2: Funny. I read an article that said that in less than ten years, they’ve

become the dominant species of ant in the southwest.

Speaker 3: Illegal aliens? Why doesn’t Immigration do something?

Speaker 1: How about the killer bees that are on their way from…somewhere in

South America?

Speaker 2: It’s creepy to think about insects evolving so fast they’re becoming

immune to pesticides. What are people going to do twenty years from


Speaker 1: I remember reading that insect protein is easier to digest than meat

protein. Does that suggest a solution?

Speaker 3: That’s it! We could launch a culinary campaign—EAT them into retreat!

Speaker 1: The fast food of the future: hamBUGers…French FLIES…chocolate chip


Speaker 2: Sounds appetizing. How about LICE-eroni or Kraft MAGGOTroni and



For future generations who’ll be dealing with the insect problem, I enclose a more complete list of our gastronomic suggestions:

Campbell’s chigger-noodle soup, Kellogg’s Grapegnats, roach beef, miteloaf, weevil schnitzel, sweet and sowbug pork, cheese souflea, split bee soup, tomato waspic, salted mixed nits, caramel locustard, shish-kebug, rice beelaf, potato crickettes, bughetti and fleaballs, fish ticks, and manicootie.



One day in the middle of last week, it snowed. Only the noon before I had herded the kids out onto the deck in front of the school for pick-up and noted, as I sat luxuriating on the steps, how fine and warm the sun shone, as though servicing a summer day. It was the beginning of February, so the theoretical rainy season was nearly over, but there hadn’t been any rain—only that scene-stealing sun—the hills still parched and yellow from the previous summer.

But the very next morning, as I walked out to the carport, big sloshy snowflakes drifted all around me like eiderdown from a burst pillow, settling on my hair and clothes. Though the asphalt of the parking lot was merely slick and wet, my car was tucked under a white wooly blanket, which I removed with a pancake turner.

At school the older kids toppled out of the yellow school bus, frantic with excitement. In a moment, they were scrunching the white stuff into soggy balls and pelting each other mercilessly. Car roofs and building roofs and horizontal surfaces of all sorts were daintily iced. Only the bare ground remained muddily unaesthetic.

That morning I prepared a soap flakes paste for my kids to make snow pictures. Greg cut out wonderful house and tree shapes and glued them on a blue background. Then, when my back was turned, he obliterated all his meticulous work with a soap flakes blizzard.

I finished up at 1:30 and walked out to my car. Ah! Now nature had finished dressing her landscape. The farmed hills around the school, the sky, everything resolved itself into a pearly gray softness. There was a blurring, a blending of things that made the latticework of bare branches stand out, as though redrawn for the season by a bolder hand. But more than that, the mood of the world had changed, like a melody gone minor. I spied a clutch of lavender wildflowers by a fence, quivering in the perilous frost. Each blossom wore a white peaked cap, like a diminutive tragicomic clown. For a brief moment, I relived the first snows of my childhood in a time and place that existed for me again. And I shivered with cold and pathos.



My evenings with Arlen and Harry were so convivial, partly because her kids were off at college—and I no longer was witness to the disparity in the way she treated them.

She often used to say that she’d been her mother’s little princess and her father’s little match girl, and over time I had come to see how this split expressed itself in her relationship with her kids. Jeff was her little prince, and Karen her little match girl. From his birth, she’d adored Jeff—loved his wide-set eyes and broad smile that were like his father’s—and disliked her daughter’s long face and “narrow dental arch” that were like her own. From the beginning she’d loved Jeff’s energy and spirit and, anxious about doing anything that might dampen it, had coddled and indulged him, unable to deny him anything. Karen, on the other hand, she saddled with all her expectations and biases about what a girl should be—helpful, adaptable, accommodating. She found fault with what she regarded as her daughter’s whininess and clumsiness—Karen had, by Arlen’s standards, big hands and feet—and rued her lack of charm. While she saw her son as possessing all the manly graces, she saw her daughter as possessing none of the feminine ones.

Witnessing this dynamic had been painful to me, partly because it reminded me of my own situation, the way my mother catered to my brother while making demands on me, though for entirely different reasons.

In any case, Arlen had fastened all of her hopes on her Jeff, who’d inherited some of her artistic flair, so that it became impossible for her, being as homophobic as she was, to accept the implications of something that happened while Jeff was still in high school: he’d been brought home one night by a policeman, who’d spotted him in a car with an older man.