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.



This is the first illustration of the little fool to appear in Sir Little Fool and the Skeptical Princess, my second children’s book. He came a long way in the two years I was teaching myself to be an illustrator. See below.

On the left is the opening illustration of Somebody Grab That Dog, my previous book; on the right is my initial drawing of the little fool, looking very much like my original protagonist—he was my starting point.


But what palette and what drawing tools should I choose, I wondered, for Sir Little Fool and the Skeptical Princess—a more ambitious undertaking? What did I want my fairy tale world to look like? Bright? Pastel? How detailed?

At Amsterdam Art, I discovered pastel markers that I tried out to get more subtlety in my colors—also, a rapidograph ink pen that, with the finest nib, allowed me to explore intricate textures.


Soon my figures, unaccountably, became chunkier and more squat. I would trace them and try out a number of small variations in their poses before choosing the final one.


I call this my Sinuous Period, when my figures wavered, sometimes looking like they didn’t have skeletal structures.


Next came my Bulbous Period when I began to draw round shapes to construct my figures. My first versions were spontaneous scribbles in regular pencil. But as I refined the illustration, I sometimes felt that it was losing too much of the energy and expressiveness of the original—and I went back to study it to see where I was going awry.


Then one morning I woke up and found myself in a quandary. Whereas before my compulsion was to draw curved lines, now I found I could only draw straight ones—which ushered in my Prickly Period when all my figures looked faceted.


It was during my Prickly Period that I really got the hang of drawing the little fool.


The problem with markers, however, is that the backgrounds come out blotchy or ribbed, as you can see in my Sinuous Period. So I tried watercolor.


But I was unused to a brush and quickly shifted to colored pencil, both because I had better control—and because I could erase.

Only now I stumbled upon a new problem. Because I wanted the outlines to be as unobtrusive as possible, I continued to use my rapidograph pen, its nib about the diameter of a coarse hair. But trying to combine these two mediums proved foolhardy: Dust from the colored pencils kept clogging the nib, which then had to be replaced—and they weren’t cheap. Of course, I’d have the guy at the local art store try to unclog the nib first. Sometimes he’d succeed, but he was so klutzy, his efforts invariably resulted in some minor catastrophe, like the time he shook the pen and spattered permanent ink all over my favorite sweatshirt.

In the end I abandoned the pen and started doing the dark outlining in black colored pencil, though the dust from it smeared and muddied the nearby colors as my hand dragged over the image during drawing.

But now, all these years later, I can restore the clarity of the colors using various tools in Photoshop!



“An experiment. It’s too hot in the house to do anything but sweat, so I’ve turned amphibian and made bath water my element. I’m presently squatting in the tub with my typewriter on a board and my hair in a shower cap to keep it off my neck.

“Today was a bummer. I went to a certain office in the City to look over listings for civil service jobs. I was toting a wool coat (though the temperature in Berkeley was 90 degrees, I was prepared for any exigency), a pastrami sandwich (will the mayonnaise spoil in the heat and poison me?), and a jumbo sketch pad (the only paper I could find). Once in the City, I drove in dazed circles for an indeterminate amount of time around the appointed block—parking lot prices having shorted out my circuits.

“’One hundred’ was lettered across the entrance of the building I sought. I passed a futuristic arrangement of lights suspended from the ceiling in the lobby and took the elevator for floors 10-18. The floor numbers lit up dimly in a little black window over the buttons as they do on computerized cash registers. I mention this because it took me only half a minute to notice this—and they call me a slow study! On the eleventh floor I got out and stared down blank corridors.

“When I took the elevator down again two hours later, I felt as deflated as a popped balloon—job titles I couldn’t decipher, entailing responsibilities I couldn’t fathom, conveying a tedium that numbed my mind to contemplate.”



Throughout my years at Seven Hills School, I poured my creativity into my job. Besides the playhouse I created in an alcove and the card and board games I designed, I made hand puppets and a puppet theater out of wooden crates and fabric and scoured the thrift stores and ransacked dumpsters looking for anything my imagination could recycle; I even rescued a charming high-backed bench from the Pier 1 trash bin, one of my favorite hangouts. I constructed a cardboard dollhouse for a pair of small Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, fashioning all the furniture out of bright-colored poster board. Since I don’t have a photo of it, I’m posting a snapshot of a similar, more elaborate dollhouse I made years later—for Arielle when she was two. (This time, the inhabitants were Kelly dolls, Barbie’s younger siblings).

Should I also mention that my first year as a co-teacher I fell in love?—with a little boy named Michael, whose mother told me he loved me too. It was all I could do not to show any partiality toward him, but in summer day care I looked forward to each morning—and the chance to hold him in the swimming pool.

Then at the end of the summer Lu called Karl and me to her office. She’d decided that, in the fall, the kindergarten would take over our space in the main building and we would have to move into the Rainbow House, a one-room bungalow. While Karl was cavalier about the change, I was stricken, anticipating what a hard time he and I were going to have. The fact that our kids had been free to roam between our two rooms and visit the Art Room and the kindergarten, as it suited them, and that we had direct access to the garden and pool had been a boon because neither Karl and I were good at controlling a large group of kids, as I’ve said.

That summer in my woodworking class, I designed and built long benches and tables to divide up the area in Rainbow House into little centers for one kind of activity or another—a reading corner, a science area, a playhouse, etc. The instructor even gave me the keys to the shop so I could close up at night when I was ready to leave. At the very least, I reasoned, I could create physical barriers so our students couldn’t run all over the place.

But Karl and I were in for an even worse year than I’d imagined because for the first time we had several really difficult students—kids with behavioral problems—which was incredibly stressful. I no longer remember at what point I decided to quit at the end of the school year, but what I didn’t anticipate was that Karl, who’d worked at there longer than I had, would follow suit.

And I had another reason for leaving too. Because teaching was so all-consuming—there was always so much more you could do—I found myself working full-time, though I was only being paid for half that, and I began to long for a job that would leave me time and energy for other creative ventures. Which was why, at thirty, I decided to leave Seven Hills School and took a part-time job as a babysitter/ housekeeper instead.



As I reread my dream, what strikes me now is how prescient it seems: The two sets of windows I escape through could represent the two “institutional” jobs I would hold in my twenties and thirties, the first at Seven Hills School, the second at Tiburon College. The feeling of being free at last could represent my eventually becoming self-employed as an English-as-a-Second-Language tutor, which allowed me to focus more on developing my creative abilities. The horses that are animated drawings seem to foretell my destiny as an illustrator, including the very beginning of that journey—because the first expression of my love of illustration, at age four, was my fascination with a record cover of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty that featured a prince on horseback. Then, many decades later, I drew my own rider-to-the-rescue, the little fool in The Skeptical Princess below. And the music that seems to come from inside me presages all the children’s songs I would one day write.


I can’t believe it! Google actually found that record cover! And how early our predilections reveal themselves, I marvel.

When I was in preschool in New Haven, my teachers used to play this album. I was so entranced by the cover that when my family moved back to Minnesota, I asked my mom to buy the record for me—just for the illustration! Then it was lost en route to California when I was thirteen.

Wanting to compare my drawing with the image I remembered, I just did an online search—and there, amid, maybe, three hundred other Sleeping Beauty covers, was the one I remembered, the most dog-eared and beat-up of them all. (Now it occurs to me that, for all I know, this could be the very record cover that I lost all those years ago!)

Admittedly my memory of this illustration was more ethereal—with Sleeping Beauty in a gray stone tower, dressed like a princess of old. Also, I saw Prince Charming on a white charger, struggling through a dense forest of thistles. Even so, I’m as sure as I can be that this cover inspired my own drawing for Sir Little Fool and the Skeptical Princess:



Unfortunately, It soon became clear the trajectory of my voice training with Mrs. Unruh was headed in the wrong direction. She was aging, distracted, and could no longer stay focused on our lessons. She would stop repeatedly to air a litany of complaints about her life, including the fact that she was being pressured to sell her house because the area was being transformed into a shopping center. Also, she had to take care of her mother, who lived with her, which she resented, especially since her sister, as she often reiterated, had always been the favorite. So the momentum that used to sweep me into that rarified state of being deeply energized and relaxed at the same time rarely happened anymore.

Then she broke her hip, as I mentioned in my letter to Ella, and couldn’t teach for several months. When she recovered we resumed my lessons, but I remember her getting irritated with me one day, something she’d never done before, because as hard as I was trying, I just wasn’t able to find my old groove. Of course, during my senior year of college, I’d been taking four lessons a week, but now I could only afford one. I suppose if I’d been more mature and less intimidated by her, maybe I could have found ways to steer her back to the task at hand when she went off on her verbal tangents. But maybe not.

In any case, one day when I arrived at her house, no one answered the doorbell. I rang and rang, then went around the side of the house, intending to knock at the back door—and found a gardener raking leaves, who told me Mrs. Unruh had had a stroke and was in the hospital. She survived but never taught again.



I would always feel conflicted about teaching, despite my love of children and the fact that there was an educator in my personality. I just wasn’t meant to be in a classroom. As an artist—in a broad sense of the word that includes singing and writing as well as the visual arts—my internal imperative has always been to express myself through my creativity, using my art to teach children. I didn’t find much time to write during my years at Seven Hills School, but a number of pieces have survived that give voice to my ambivalence, though I didn’t reveal it to anybody else but my therapists. I wrote:

When I read what I’ve written I am most surprised by my occasional savagery and most pleased by the occasional bits of poignancy I find on pages littered with the refuse of my own sense of failure. They’re like little graces, floating down from heaven, like dandelion silk.

I am probably keeping the older generation awake, a fact which dampens my literary ardor, bound up as it is with typewriter racket.

I was thinking before I dropped off to sleep last night that teaching has built a new annex onto my self, but that I haven’t felt inclined to move in yet.

I was thinking: teaching doesn’t feed my art because it leaves no space for me to observe. I’m so busy being a one-man band that my spectator self has to stand aside—so later I can’t remember a thing about the gig.

I wanted to write so much this morning, but now I feel as sour as an old pill. I was thinking as I drove off to work, “Friday is one day of the week too many.” And “Life is a blueberry turnover—doughy and underdone, with too little of the sweet goo.”

So what do you want to know, diary? That I just got blueberry on the keys? I have no success to report—major, minor, or middling.

(I figure I’m trying so hard to be cute that, to my own detriment, I may succeed.)

So how was I able to carry off the role of teacher as well as I eventually did? Well, to survive in the world, as I’ve said, I’d had to become an actress, adept at feigning calm and self-possession, and besides—my affection and attachment to my students was real. I think of teaching as such a noble profession that, even as I write this, I find myself wanting to apologize for the fact that it wasn’t my first calling.



Now that I was making a little more money, I made an appointment with the voice teacher—I no longer remember his name—of a beautiful soprano I’d heard recently. At his studio in San Francisco, sitting in a waiting room, I was able to listen in on the end of the previous student’s lesson, a relatively inexperienced singer—and I wasn’t encouraged by what I heard. Wanting to make a good impression, I was dressed in a summery white voile dress with red apples that I’d made myself—and when the other student left and I entered the studio, the teacher’s eyes lit up. In the course of the lesson, he stopped and started me—again and again—to instruct me, the way most voice teachers do, which I didn’t find particularly helpful. When I left, I was seized by the notion that before I made a commitment to any other teacher, I had to try at least one more lesson with Mrs. Unruh—to find out if she could still work the magic she once did with my voice.

She’d been angry with me when I had to quit five years earlier—and she wasn’t an easy person—so I took pains with the conciliatory letter I wrote her. When she agreed to give me a lesson, I drove to her house in Oakland, a few blocks from her former studio, which she’d since relinquished.

About that session, I don’t remember a single detail, though for me there was so much riding on it, I’m sure I was a nervous wreck. The only thing I do remember is that by the end of it, my voice was lifting off, as though in time it would be soaring again—and that the experience was transformative just the way it had been five years before.

In A Patchwork Memoir, I’d written about the first year I studied with Mrs. Unruh:

She was an old battle-axe…but a magician with voices. All the students I heard at her studio had the same quality of freedom when they sang. Goose bumps are my barometer. I get them when I hear that quality of naturalness in a voice; I don’t when I don’t. Everyone has an authentic voice, potentially. But training, in all its variety, only helps a lucky few to fully realize it. Mrs. Unruh loved doing what she called “remedial” work—with professionals whose voices had broken down after years of abuse, as well as beginners like me, who hadn’t the least idea how to use their voice at all. “Support!” she used to bellow at me from the music room when she heard me chatting with other students.

For a short story I wrote this description:

Cory sat beside Mrs. Rundle, one buttock on, one buttock off the piano bench, which seemed only fair, there was so much less of her than her teacher. Mrs. Rundle was dressed for summer in a pilly polyester suit—chartreuse—with a matching plastic corsage. (In winter she wore an identical plum-colored one with another matching corsage. These two outfits comprised her entire wardrobe, except for a third corsage of frosted bells and silver holly that she wore at Christmas time.) Her iron-gray hair, riveted to the top of her head with a battery of bobby pins, was now loosening. Her pink, powdered jowls quivered while her hands pounded and feet—in holey support hose—pedaled, and flakes of skin—eczema—drifted down from behind her ears. Her little bow mouth, with its perfunctory smudge of vivid lipstick, was set like a tyrant’s.

“Relax your jaw,’ she shouted over the thundering piano.

“Ee-yaw, ee-yaw, ee-yaw…’ Cory sang up the scale, braying like a coloratura donkey.


“Cory drew a breath to swim a lap underwater by and sang still higher.

“From the top of the piano, in a curlicue silver frame, a mild-faced , white-haired man—Mrs. Rundle’s long-deceased husband—beamed at Cory with beneficent sympathy.

“A voice is like a baby carrot,’ Mrs. Rundle announced, stopping suddenly, her tone gentle now. ‘If you weed too soon, you kill the carrot.”



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.”



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.