A number of years after the fact, I wrote about my experiences as a “stewardess,” as we called ourselves.

“My recollection of the training school in Miami is like a bad collage—snippets of irrelevancy:

“A make-up room at the school with a long row of mirrors, like a chorus girls’ dressing room. It was there I had my first and last contest with a false eyelash. It would not conform to the arc of my eyelid. Mostly it contrived to stick gluily to my fingers, but on the occasions it opted for my eye, it assumed crazy configurations of its own.

“According to regulations, if you didn’t want short hair, you had the option of a stunted ponytail—more like a shaving brush, actually, than anything you’d find on the backside of a horse. I sat at the hairdresser’s in a white paper poncho, hair hanging to my waist. He collected the fine strands and, clutching them at the nape of my neck, performed the amputation with a single metallic clash of his scissors. I walked out into the warm-bath-water air toward the motel…but detoured around a tree in a weedy yard to have a brief cry. “

Those of us with ponytails were directed by the grooming instructor to wear a spit curl in front of each ear. After pulling out two small, pink rollers each morning, I tried to embalm each curl with a blast of hair spray. But, no thanks to the humidity, from one side of the highway to the other—which I crossed to get to the training school—my strawberry blond springs came unsprung. So the instructor threatened me with even more drastic surgery.

“Monday mid-mornings, after our overseas shots, we all dragged our arms around as though they were cast in concrete. At break time our instructor issued aspirin, and we converged on the water fountain for a pill-popping.

“The motel had a smorgasbord of inedibles—an assortment of jellos, macaronis, and cold cuts. I went around with a chronic bellyache till a Cuban named Eduardo I met at a party rescued me, inviting me to his apartment for home-cooked meals. He fed me black beans and tocino del cielo—a kind of custard—and tried to talk me into quitting and becoming his secretary.

“One afternoon, under the supervision of our air safety instructor, we played at being marooned at sea. We bailed into an inflatable life raft in the motel swimming pool, and, after throwing up the awning on poles, we took our ease in its shade, sucking on lifesavers, which were among the raft’s standard provisions. Back in the mock-up room at the school, in a midsection of airplane with a few seats and an emergency exit, we rehearsed emergency landings on land and sea and hypothetically lost ourselves and passengers to both elements in trial after trial.”



The summer after my freshman year of college, I went on a study program to Mexico. I’m including the photo above, remembering this was one of the dresses I packed in my suitcase.

“Dear Britte,

“Hola! I’m sitting here on my bed again because it’s siesta time—a welcome relief because I get so exhausted trying to speak Spanish, trying to understand, and blundering through a million new situations. The first afternoon and night here I slept (calculate, calculate) eighteen hours!

“Benita, who works with my mom, and her husband drove me to Mexicali, where we all boarded the bus for Guadalajara. The air conditioning conked out, the bus broke down in the middle of the night, I hardly slept in two days, and my period started. Oh, it was a delightful trip.

“I’m living with a widow, Carmen, who’s terribly gracious and concerned and kind. She putters around the house, whistling and singing, but she tries a little too hard—I mean, it bothers me because I don’t want to be a burden to her. She’s never had Americans in her house before, and she’s so anxious to please. Her daughter Lolita lives downstairs—she’s married and has four little kids, though she’s only twenty-three. She has to spend all day in bed because she’s pregnant again and could lose the baby if she’s up and around. Then there are a couple of maids and millions of relatives who call or visit all day long. Something that amuses me is all the yelling; Lolita is always calling, ‘Mama! Mama!’ from downstairs, and Mama is hollering something back, and the kids are crying, and Lolita is scolding, ‘Callate, nino!’

“Yesterday one of Carmen’s nephews, Jose, came over; he’s an intern, young and unmarried—and of course there I was alone, having to converse with him. By the way, it isn’t talking that‘s so hard. If something pops into my mind, I make myself do a rapid hurdle over my inhibition and just blurt it out. Even then I don’t talk much, but the problem is understanding. It’s a trial to deal with each new acquaintance because at first they refuse to slow down, and I have to say, ‘No comprendo, no comprendo’ till I’m blue in the face. If they talk at normal speed, 99% of the time I am completely lost! Anyway, he told me he had seventy to eighty cousins. That’s what I mean about a million relatives—his mother, Carmen’s sister, had seventeen children, but three died.

“In the two days I’ve been here, in spite of the fact I’ve been sleeping so much, I’ve been to the market, to dinner with all the older generation, and to a movie—that was particularly strange. Carmen and I went with Cristina, Jose’s nineteen-year-old sister, and her fiance, and my God, the two of them were so constrained and formal with each other! Cristina is exquisite, with a funny high-pitched voice. She is very shy with me, which hardly anyone else is, but demonstrative—she warmly took my hand to say goodbye to me. Apparently she’s gone with this guy for a year, but the most they can do is hold hands, since they’re always chaperoned. One time she was biting her fingernail and he took her hand away from her mouth—that was the most intimate gesture I saw between them.

“Well, the house is stirring again, so I’ll sign off!”



It may seem paradoxical that, being as hypochondriacal as I am, I’m liable to risk life and limb when it comes to taking on challenges of nature. If there’s a promontory, I have to walk out to the very edge of it—to Earl’s chagrin; he’s afraid the ground beneath me is going to give way. Or I’m apt to climb up rocks I’m going to have trouble getting down, with no tread on my Reeboks and not a hell of a lot of strength. Or to wade into powerful river currents that could sweep me away. I’d like to think I have a reasonably good sense of what to attempt and what not to, but… As a child I was a tomboy, a rough-and-tumble little girl, and sometimes, despite my physical limitations, she still holds sway.


On the phone, waiting for Earl to come up from his basement studio, Pippa—his roomer—tells me she loves the snapshot Earl took of me and my Reebok.

“’She has no fear,’ he says about you,” she confides.

“I used to have that photo on the Desktop of my computer,” I admit.

Then I tell her the whole story—how I tried, in my bare feet, to scale a huge rock on the cliffside of Stinson Beach after naively leaving my Reeboks on a ledge about four feet above the sand. I hadn’t clambered very far when a huge sneaker wave (a pun, I just realized) swept in and carried one of my shoes out to sea. “Fifty bucks down the drain!” I’d wailed tragically to Earl. But moments later, a second great wave carried it partway back. So of course I dashed out into the surf, knowing this would be my last chance to recover my investment. Earl snapped me at the moment I turned, white parka soaked to the neck, and triumphantly waved my rescued Reebok.

When Marga— from my Artist’s Way group—heard the story, she cried, “Oh, my God, Callie! You can’t do that! People are killed every year by sneaker waves. Next time, please remember I said I’d buy you another pair of Reeboks.”

OK, OK. I’ll try.



In the bus after the concert, my friend Ginny and I happened to be sitting near Mr. Pearson. In a dreamy mood, I was gazing out at the hills, which looked silvery in the moonlight. When he asked us how we’d liked the concert, Ginny answered, but I didn’t. I didn’t even turn my head. So he reached out and gently turned my head towards him, asking, “And how did you like it, Cathy?” His gesture was so tender that I must have blushed, I felt so flustered and flattered at the same time.

The next day, while choir members were singing solos, Mr. Pearson came and sat next to me at the end of the back row of altos. A moment later he nudged me with his knee. I responded without thinking by “nudging” him back, though it was more a light whack than a nudge. What I was feeling I remember clearly—again I was flattered by his attention, giddy even, but at the same time I felt instinctively that his gesture wasn’t appropriate, so there was reproof in my response as well. I didn’t think of his nudge as anything sexual. I thought of it as playful and teasing and my gesture was meant to be the same.

Immediately he got up stiffly and walked to the front of the room—and for the rest of the school year he wouldn’t so much as glance in my direction. As he conducted, he would scan the choir as usual but would always stop just short of looking at me in the far right corner.

When it came time for him to choose an alto for the Madrigals, the select group that sang carols in various venues at Christmastime, he chose Betsy, one of the most popular girls in the school, instead of me, though she wondered why, telling me I was the better singer.

Similarly, when it came time to choose the leads and the chorus for the spring musical, though I auditioned—and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, I had such terrible performance fright—I didn’t even get a part in the chorus, which was all I’d wanted.

The musical was supposed to be Brigadoon, but for whatever reason it got abruptly changed to South Pacific. That’s when I finally got a walk-on part because a few more singers were needed as guests at an evening party.

One afternoon shortly after that, Mr. Pearson was so fed up with some of the kids in the choir for not paying attention that he announced we were going to have to sing in small groups for our final grades, one person per part. The high-profile singers in the chorus had already performed when I was put in a group with several other kids who, until that moment, had been as inconspicuous as I was. We sang so well together, Mr. Pearson’s jaw dropped and he challenged us to do it again. We did, and performed it just as well the second time.

By the night of the musical, I’d finally gotten my braces off, and I wore a donated cocoa-colored gown that had been altered to fit me. When I passed Mr. Pearson on the staircase before the performance, he finally spoke to me again, saying how pretty I looked.

Because of my broad vocal range, I could have been a soprano in Concert Chorale, but I’d chosen to be an alto because I found singing lower down more comfortable. I had a break between my registers—that is, between my chest voice and my head voice—that I had trouble negotiating. (The chest voice is what pop singers generally use; the head voice is what female opera singers mostly use; and yodelers use both, deliberately accentuating the difference between them.)

Mr. Pearson gave voice lessons to the Madrigals, so I could have begun my vocal training my senior year of high school if he’d chosen me to be one of them. And he could have told me what I wouldn’t learn until five years later: that I had an even better voice than I knew, because a break between registers can be mended with the right vocalizes.

I was so mortified by my own reflexive response to Mr. Pearson’s nudge that it was years before I was able to tell even one of my girlfriends about it.



In the years after Doug’s and my first summer visit with my dad, he would scrawl letters to me detailing all his physical pain and problems, as I’ve said—all of which left me with a crushing sorrow about his condition, as well as a lingering guilt about having abandoned him.

 One Christmas I took a picture of Doug—crouched in front of our decorated tree—that my uncle Rob, my mother’s older brother, admired. An amateur photographer, he was impressed that I’d gotten such a beautiful hand-held time exposure. I had it enlarged and proudly sent the framed photo to my father as a Christmas gift, but his only response was to comment in his next letter that it captured Doug’s “coldness.” Among the letters I wrote my dad as a teenager that he sent back to me a few years ago is one that comes as a complete surprise to me:

“Doug did write you a letter—before Christmas. But you never answered it, and he felt really bad about it. He picked out your Christmas present too. I think you’re much too hard on him. He’s not the ogre you seem to think he is—although he is pretty hard to get along with some of the time. If he neglects writing to you, it’s not because he’s unfeeling; it’s just that he doesn’t stop to think how much a letter from him would mean to you. He’s too wrapped up in his own problems—which is natural for kids his age. And you can understand why he would have problems. He has to live with his burn, which he looks at as a major deformity, and he’s growing up without a father and has no one to model himself after or look up to. Here he sees you as practically perfect and defends you to the hilt, and then you reject him. I don’t think you can expect a little guy of fourteen to have mature compassion and sensitivity. I wish you would write him—he needs someone to care about him and what he does.”

What astonished me when I reread this letter was that I was able to stand up to my father to defend my brother at a time I couldn’t have on my own behalf.



The other day I watched the movie Wonder, with Julia Roberts. In one scene the main character, based on August Pullman, decided during a math test in fifth grade to show his answers to a classmate to help him out. And what struck me was the movie’s indulgent attitude about this cheating—it made me feel good that they didn’t make a big deal out of it.

One morning when I was in fifth grade—while a couple of my classmates in front of me were furtively trading answers on a standardized reading test—I did something that would be life-changing: Worried that they were going to score much higher on the test than I was, I tried to peek over at a classmate’s answers.

Before fifth grade I’d always felt happy and confident in school. I’d had teachers I liked and who’d liked me—and maybe that was a mitigating influence that allowed me to feel smart and successful despite my father’s daunting expectations. But in fifth grade I had a teacher, Mrs. Koehler, who didn’t like me, though I never knew why. Soon I began noticing differences in my classmates’ abilities—Ronny and Carol were best at math and Margie was best at spelling. Up until then I’d been able to keep up with all the kids in the gifted group in my class, but now, for the first time, I began to worry about measuring up.

This was also the year that I started becoming obsessive and began to painstakingly write my homework in an elaborate cursive with fancy “descenders”—and if I made more than one mistake that I had to cross out, I would crumple up the page and start over.

It was the year I developed “eveningmares” and had to have a nightlight to sleep. I’d seen a movie called The Revenge of Frankenstein, and every evening after dark I became terrified of seeing the monster in a window, coming for me.

When I remember these details now, it almost seems to me that I was sensing an impending doom, and that this was a child’s way of externalizing her fear—for death was impending, though it was a psychic rather than a physical one. Because what was happening behind the scenes in my parents’ lives would, over the course of the next three years, spell emotional disaster for all of us. And, as Maurice Sendak said in one of his lectures, “Children know everything.”

When my teacher’s voice rang out, “Cathy, why do you feel the need to cheat?” I felt abjectly humiliated. What I couldn’t have known was how fateful this transgression of mine would prove to be.



For the first three years we lived on Raymond, Doug and I shared a small bedroom. Before bed, my mom would set my hair in pin curls with bobby pins; then my dad would tell us a bedtime story about the hair-raising adventures of two kids. And though neither of my parents was particularly demonstrative, we always got a goodnight kiss. Unfortunately, my dad’s tall tales often involved giants, which gave Doug nightmares—and sometimes a bobby pin would get clipped to my ear when I rolled over in my sleep, so my ear would be painfully sore the next morning.

I have one curious memory I associate with this yellow-flowered bedroom. One evening at bedtime it occurred to me to wonder why I always slept on my back. Then I remembered: in my preschool years, when I’d sleep on my stomach, I had a recurring nightmare about a boogeyman who would creep up on me in my bed at night and seize me from behind—and tickle me, which was frightening both because it was so sudden and unexpected and because I sensed his malevolence. I’d started sleeping on my back in an attitude of vigilance—and the nightmares had stopped. But I wasn’t afraid anymore, I told myself, and from then on I slept any which way.

Eventually my parents decided it was time for Doug and me to have our own rooms. He was consigned to the narrow back porch, which had a bank of windows on three sides and no radiator. It was freezing cold in winter—a situation that always troubled me. Then my parents stripped off the old wallpaper in what was to be my room, and Mom set about turning it into the dream bedroom she’d never had as a child. She bought a polished-cotton bedspread with pink and purple pansies and a vanity with a skirt that matched the bedspread—with arms that opened out so you could reach the drawers underneath. It had a mirror top, as well as a triptycal standing mirror that you could adjust to see yourself from various angles. On the one window she hung gauzy pink ruffled curtains, and she bought a light gray rug to go with the newly painted cool gray walls.

I’ve never liked pink and purple together, however, and I’ve always remembered this room as depressingly cold in aspect, now that it was no longer warmed by yellow roses. I was too young to wear make-up, so instead I used the tryptical mirror to draw self-portraits when I was sick. I also recall how cold the mirror top felt when I rested my arms or elbows on it. But maybe some of this sense of chill had to do with being alone in the room now—or even with guilt about my brother’s frigid bedroom.

In any case, this was the beginning of my drawing portraits, first of myself, then of friends and family too. The self-portrait above I sketched when I was ten.




And Happy Hanukkah!


Below is a photo of me in my pajamas, trying a clown costume on my new Muffy doll when I was…nine, maybe?



A later Christmas letter:

Dear friends and family,

Today when I was driving back from Walnut Creek, I saw the brown hills just beginning to green, which always lifts my spirits. (Actually, I learned recently that the indigenous grasses were perennial, so the landscape used to be green all summer…until annual grasses were introduced and took over.)

Last spring, when the green hills persisted, full of wildflowers, into May, I drove everywhere I could think of to go, including bayside towns like Tiburon and Sausalito that I hadn’t visited in years, as well as Point Richmond to see the progress they were making renovating the old natatorium where my mom used to swim as a child. (They finally opened in August—a beautiful pool with a huge mural of the local park, its tiny lake and small island, on the far wall.) I got to know my way around these towns—where the best views were, the best restaurants, and, most importantly, the best gelato. Eventually I bought a laptop and spent time writing in cafes all over the place.

I also made my annual trip to the dunes north of Drake’s Beach, bordered by fields of ice plant—blooming yellow and magenta—and dotted with wild purple irises. (At my age, it’s not so easy climbing under barbed wire fences, however. It was also a challenge walking across the lumpy terrain to get to the dunes without spraining my ankles.)

All three of my godkids are taking karate classes now. (The day after Arielle showed me how to get out of certain holds, I had bruises on my arms.) She’s taking a computer arts course as her elective this semester and announced the other day that she wants to go to MIT! (Before she wanted to go to UC Santa Cruz because they didn’t give grades and she loved the boardwalk.)

Just last night I went to hear her chorus and Michael’s band perform at King Middle School (Michael plays the trumpet.) I always feel a sense of wonderment to find myself back at “Garfield Junior High,” as it was called in my day. After Mom moved Doug and me to California, I started eighth grade there. But now it’s so changed I hardly recognize it. There’s an atrium full of greenery just beyond the main entrance and a huge garden out back where the students have a chicken coop and grow all kinds of vegetables. (The garden was the brainchild of Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been applying myself to doing my final painstaking colored pencil drawings for The Incredible Adventures of Jix, while waiting to hear—or not—from the latest dozen publishers I sent my manuscript to. (They no longer contact you—no more rejection letters—unless they’re interested in your book.) If I don’t get any nibbles, I’ll have to begin to think about publishing my stories myself.

I hope you enjoy a Christmas and New Year full of good health and good cheer!

In the photo above, I’m drawing on my light table, wearing three pairs of glasses that I used to piggyback depending on the magnification I wanted. Originally, I transformed my sewing table into a light table with a rectangle of translucent plexiglass for a drawing surface and a flat florescent light from Ace Hardware underneath it.

With my back problems, however, I eventually decided it was more comfortable to work on the sofa. And when I discovered Readers in San Rafael, a shop that has beautiful reading glasses for $6 a pair, I started a collection in a variety of magnifications.



On the road again, we head north to the town of Pescadero and Duarte’s restaurant, famous for its artichoke soup. It’s a rustic tavern with wood-paneled walls and huntsmen’s trophies overhead—sets of deer antlers with and without heads. I marvel again at how beautiful deer faces are and wonder how anyone can bear to shoot them.

Earl tells me about his friend Hank from his Greenwich Village days answering a classified ad for a used something-or-other—and after going to buy it from the seller, commenting to Earl ingenuously, “And isn’t it a coincidence that his name was Norman Mailer, just like the novelist?” Earl’s circle of friends and acquaintances back then included Jack Kerouac, as well as Mailer, and other up-and-coming writers and artists of the time. He lived on the fourth floor of what had been a factory with his wife Moira, who was also a painter—and looked like the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, he swears. The “loft,” as they called it, was 2500 square feet (with the requisite skylights), which his friend Jimmy and he partitioned into three studios and a living space, using the wood from packing crates they scavenged in the neighborhood. He and Moira had a Siamese cat named Sheba that gave birth to a strange litter of kittens—Eightball, Oddball, Blackball, and Fink, they called them. Eightball, the one they kept, was huge and curly-haired, which led them to speculate he might have been sired by a bobcat. He used to climb up the back of Earl’s easel and jump up into one of the skylights, where he hunkered down on a beam and watched Earl paint with rapt attention for hours on end.

“Did you and Moira have a church wedding?” I ask. They were married by a Unitarian minister, he says, and Moira wore a blue cocktail dress. They had to cut back the guest list when her father, a graphic artist who worked for Disney, among other jobs, went bankrupt for the umpteenth time, and they realized they were going to have to pay for the wedding themselves. But the celebrated painter Hans Hoffman, Earl’s mentor, attended with his wife. And their weird friend Syd, who, after poring over the paintings in the Metropolitan Museum, showed up at the Hoffman School, announcing at the reception desk he wanted to learn to paint like Delacroix. “That’s good enough,” said Hoffman, who happened to be standing nearby—and promptly admitted him.

When Earl talks about Moira, I think to myself, “She was the love of his life.” And I wonder how much competition had to do with the failure of their marriage. “If I was the better painter, she was the better artist,” Earl once told me. But the art world has always been an exclusive men’s club—and so while Earl won prizes and was offered teaching positions, Moira was left to watch from the sidelines.