Dear friends and family,

It’s hard to know how, this year, to start a Christmas letter. Last year I sent out a card with a cartoon Santa, his bag full, not of presents but of doves. This card that I first sketched out many years prior of an old-world Father Christmas was the precursor. Since I’m laid up with the flu, anyway, I finally decided to finish it—though I no longer have a Rapidograph pen to do the job properly—because the sentiment feels more apt than ever.




To read: *10* Children’s Stories…

To do: Fun Activities with Kids…

To see: original Doll Clothes

To view: Neighborhood Gardens

Or survey: Berkeley Houses

…just scroll up the right sidebar on this page—if you’re on a computer—to Categories, where you will find all of the above—and more!

If you’re on a cellphone, scroll down from this post past Recent Posts and Archives to Categories.




I just realized that my category Fun Activities, while it included two pictures of my “Christmas dollhouse,” didn’t include one of the entire original dollhouse I created for Arielle. When she was two, after Michael’s birth, I used to visit her regularly at the family home just a few blocks from mine, until one day she asked wistfully, “Can I come to your house? Do you have toys for me to play with?”

So I went out and bought a car seat for her, stocked my apartment with books and toys, and built her a doll house out of colored poster board. It featured a bedroom with a wardrobe closet and drawers; a kitchen with a sink, dish drainer, and even a paper towel dispenser, as well as cabinets that opened and a stove with an oven; and a garden with a birdhouse, potted flowers, gardening tools, a watering can, and a pool with two turtles. Its inhabitants were Kelly dolls, Barbie’s younger sisters and brothers—and eventually we wound up with quite a collection of them!




Now the boat plows on—

the ocean heaving like a breast

laboring for breath—

a black flag beating from its bow,

past cliff sides

dotted with green,

shrubs like tumbleweeds

blown down from above.


Beyond, the city skyline—

skyscrapers sheered off by mist,

the shoreline shrouded in fog,

the bridge running off

into oblivion,

while the sea ripples like gooseflesh

under the wind.


When he was laid out,

a nurse told Arlen

he was a handsome man,

which pleased her,

though she had never thought so herself.

The nurses who shaved him every day

had let a mustache grow,

which became him, Arlen said,

and he had a sweet,

almost cherubic expression

in death.


Soon the sun breaks through,

turning the water to mercury,

and the sky is blue,

the clouds erased,

leaving wisps like chalk dust.


The boat stops

and we gather at the railing

while an attendant dumps

the contents of a brown plastic canister


a cascade of mortal debris.


It wasn’t until the nurse told me

I had to leave

that his limp fingers

tightened around mine.

Though his eyes never opened,

he hung on

and on.

She said again that I had to leave,

but he gripped my hand

and wouldn’t let go.


At latitude ____, longitude ____,

Harry came to rest,

once witty, reclusive, erudite, kind,

but sodden now,

rocking gently

on a wave.



Three years had passed since I’d seen Arlen. Then one night, I got a call from her telling me Harry was in the intensive care unit at Kaiser in critical condition. I sped over to the hospital, where she drew me into a foyer to tell me what had happened.

Harry hadn’t gotten the teaching position in New Zealand, and she’d realized only a few months before that he’d been secretly drinking at night, claiming that she hadn’t known—that until then she’d never smelled alcohol on his breath or seen him intoxicated. She told me he’d turned nasty that last month, remarking to her once, “I went out and found the one woman who could destroy me…and then I married her.” When she gave him an ultimatum to stop drinking or leave, he tried to go cold turkey but went into convulsions in the middle of the night. Now the doctors were telling her that if he survived, his liver was so damaged he could never take another drink or it would kill him.

In my journal I wrote:

     “Harry is naked except for a sheet pulled over his groin, up to the great yellow swelling of his belly, fine networks of red veins traced over the yellow of his face. He makes strangled sounds, as though he is suffocating under the transparent blue muzzle of an oxygen mask. A tube, clotted with blood, sticks from one nostril, twisting it grotesquely to one side. I stroke his cheek with the backs of my fingers, wanting to comfort him…then, fearful of disturbing his sleep, I simply rest my hand there.

     “Harry…reclusive, erudite, witty, kind. Arlen tells me he holed up in his room drunk the last month. It wasn’t until he slipped out briefly that she pushed her way in and found layers of empty bottles, dirty plates, and newspapers piled in the corners, the strata of his despair. She poured a half a gallon of vodka down the bathtub drain. When he came back and saw what she had done, he cried.

     “The laying on of hands—I’m wondering what is possible. Being happy in my life now, I find myself ardently wishing when I touch Harry that I could somehow communicate to him my own hope, give him whatever he needs of my own life force.”

     That night I went home and prayed to whatever powers might be that Harry would recover.



One night I had a dream unlike any I’d ever had before. In it, I felt a strange, acute mental anguish that was entirely different from any conscious feeling I’d ever experienced. In the dream, I went to my grandmother, who was deceased, and asked, “Someone else in the family has died, haven’t they? Is it Uncle Rob?” She shook her head. “Is it Uncle Bill?” She nodded.

When I woke up in the morning and remembered the dream, I was nonplussed and a little alarmed. I was confident at the time that dreams were always and only reflections of one’s personal unconscious, and, given that I was enjoying my life, I was troubled to think that undiscovered traumatic memories might be lurking beneath my awareness.

Two days later I got a call from my mother. My uncle Bill, who wore a brace because of the polio he’d contracted as a young man, had had a catastrophic fall in the bathtub and had spent the night in the intensive care unit of a hospital, fighting for his life. His accident happened the night of my dream—and though he survived, the experience was a revelation to me. My father had always regarded ESP as preposterous, and I’d never questioned his certitude. But now I had what surely was incontrovertible proof that he was wrong. Somehow, that night I’d tuned in to some of my uncle’s anguish. How could anyone possibly argue that my dream and my uncle’s fall were coincidental? The odds were vanishingly small.

Though I knew my experience would never convince my father, it changed my conception of reality.



The next morning Roberta came round to enlist volunteers for a Dada art performance. Seely had buried her head in her requisition book and frowned with feigned concentration, trying to appear too busy to be conscripted. But when she saw Stuart dragging a splintered chair and a power saw into the slide library, she scuttled after him. Roberta was instructing a unit of only three. So Seely fetched a Ph.D. robe from the back room, arranged the satin hood over her head, and made it a foursome.

Once Roberta was inside the lecture room, they took turns pressing their ears to the door, and, when her talk was about five minutes underway, they burst in. Nan had her boom box turned up to full volume. Seely pirouetted in front of her, clicking two giant staplers over her head like castanets and singing, “La Cucaracha.” Dizzily, she glimpsed Nan throwing confetti she’d cut from the morning’s newspaper and her assistant, Ellie, fencing at the air with a broken umbrella—handle and spokes only. Stuart, in a gas mask and goggles, was sawing the chair to splinters with a deafening roar. Roberta scolded and railed at them with almost believable outrage. Then, just before they exited, Nan snatched a pile of books from the lectern and dropped one—as per instructions. Roberta retrieved it and held it up for the class to see—”ART” was printed on the cover. “They have no respect!”she cried.  On the pile of wood that had been a chair, Stuart left a sign, “DADA LIVES!”



I’m hard, congealed anxiety, poised on the edge of a chair. My hands are shaking, feeling so barely assembled, I half-expect my fingers and thumbs to start dropping off. I’m so nervous I can’t remember which foot to put on the stool; so, after an eternity of indecision, I make a desperate gamble on the left. Next time, if there is one, I think, I’ll mark a big X beforehand on the correct sneaker.

Teddy’s voice is a deep, lazy rumble. I want to close my eyes to listen, but lower them instead, pretending to look at my guitar—and feel myself casting off, set adrift on his voice, carried beyond my fear.


Teddy stands behind the counter at Paragon Music before my lesson. He’s wearing his perennial turtleneck sweater underneath his shirt, though it’s a hot summer day. I fancy him tucking it into his bathing trunks when he goes swimming or rolling deodorant under each sleeve in the morning after he takes off his pajamas. He looks frail, even with all that padding. Once he climbed out of his sickbed to give me my lesson, wearing a rakish cap. I, who was teetering on the edge of infatuation, fell back, thinking, What an impossibly odd man!



At one of the guest lectures I attended, painter Nathan Oliveira described an evening when he’d presented a slide show of his work to a number of artist friends. “Why, you’ve got a whole exhibition’s worth here!” they’d enthused. “But they’re all the same painting!” he’d confessed. He then explained that he could never tell when a painting was done, a problem I identified with. (Earl says when Renoir was asked how he knew a painting was finished, he answered, “When I feel like pinching the model instead of painting.”) Olivera solved the problem by adopting a new medium—monotype—which allowed him to take glass “impressions” of a piece throughout its evolution. I thought to myself, “Of course! As an artist, it’s your job to find creative ways of dealing with your limitations.”

At another lecture, Painter Jay Defeo recounted how she spent eight years painting “The Rose,” which went through an Oliveira-like evolution I noted as she presented her slides, weighing almost a ton when she finally finished it. The outer wall of her apartment had to be knocked out, she told us, so the painting could be removed with a crane. Studying her more recent work, I thought “Those look suspiciously like molars.” She’d become obsessed with teeth, she went on to explain. The alcove she painted “The Rose” in hadn’t had enough ventilation, and the lead in her oils had caused all of hers to fall out.



Seely had come to feel perfectly at home here. She could even have been seen dancing in the front of the lavatory mirror, drying her hair at her desk with a hair dryer she’d brought from home, and boiling Tupperware containers of soup in a pot over a hotplate for lunch—if there had been anyone around to see her. But she was always the first one in in the morning, mostly the only one about during morning classes, and the only soul who worked through the lunch hour.



That fall was the beginning of a second Renaissance in my life. In the first place, Ella moved to Berkeley; instead of rare long-distance telephone conversations that I could ill-afford, at long last I had my best friend close at hand.

In the second, I’d always wished I’d been able to go to a small college—some place that wasn’t as impersonal as Cal. Now, a dozen years later, however improbably, I was being handed a second chance—an opportunity I was finally ready to embrace. As an employee, I could take classes for free. With a decent salary and no rent to pay, I could also afford the private lessons I’d hankered for. And working part-time, I had the time to pursue…well, classical guitar, jazz dance, photography; I even joined the Berkeley Women’s Writers Group, despite my abiding conviction that I couldn’t write fiction—and wound up penning my first short story, “In Her Own Time.”

It seemed like there was always a three-ring circus of cultural events going on at the college, so I went to guest lectures, art shows, music and dance concerts—the latter with Nan, a ballerina and the slide librarian of the Art Department, who became a friend. I felt exhilarated in a way I hadn’t in all the years since I lived in Spain. I took American art history from a visiting professor, Roberta, who was one of the most exciting lecturers I’d heard—and even began singing lessons again with one of the college voice teachers. I could tell she wasn’t doing my voice much good, but her approach was gentle enough that she didn’t seem to be doing it much harm either, and I continued to hold out hope that one day my body would wake up, like a dreamer from a long sleep, and remember how singing was done.