SEVEN HILLS SCHOOL

SEVEN HILLS SCHOOL

Shelly was a student in one of my art classes and lived just a few doors down in the Pine Creek Way condo community. One day her mom, Jean, told me there was an opening for a part-time teacher’s aide at Seven Hills School, the private elementary and preschool where she taught. Initially, I was thrilled to get the job, though I would be earning only $2 an hour. (Kids were about the only people I wasn’t painfully anxious around, as I’ve said.) The school was located in some farmed hills in Walnut Creek, the main building a ranch-style house with a garden and pool and a number of bungalows clustered around it. We had a cat, chickens, and a peacock and peahen underfoot, and cows in our back yard.

First I worked under a preschool teacher I’ll call Betty in the Red Barn, an actual barn that had been converted into two classrooms. From early on, I sensed that, like me, Betty suffered from depression, her repertoire of activities so limited that they didn’t provide much stimulation for the kids. Remembering how much I loved making forts as a child, one day I arrived with a large cardboard box that I had cut a door and windows into, big enough to be a tiny “playhouse”—well, big enough for a couple of kids to sit in, at least. I also brought a bunch of old wallpaper sample books, which the kids tore the pages out of and pasted onto the exterior of the “house.” They were so enthusiastic—and unruly, Betty thought—that forever after that she rejected all my creative ideas. I don’t know how many months I spent as her aide, but when the opportunity presented itself to work with Jean, Lu (the principal) allowed me to switch. Jean, it turned out, was masterful with kids—warm and patient and relaxed—and appreciative of my creativity as well.

My second year as an aide, I worked with Karl, the one male teacher in the school, who had the most advanced class of the five preschools. We had a choice location—two cozy rooms in the main building, one with a little nook that I turned into an actual playhouse. There was already a small round yellow table and chairs, but I created the illusion of a window with a  poster of two children walking down a scenic road that I framed with gingham curtains and added a matching tablecloth and napkins; then I scoured the local thrift shop for kitchen utensils. In a Woodshop for Women class I took in the evenings, I built a faux fireplace for the playhouse that I covered with contact paper with a brick pattern and hung a picture over it.

As for the academic side of things, Karl was a wonderfully creative teacher and would introduce a different letter of the alphabet each week, centering the daily activities around that letter. If the letter was C, for example, he might bring a cricket in a jar, a geode with crystals, serve cantaloupe for a snack, read a story about a crocodile, etc. Soon I was making my own contributions and starting to design card and board games that provided practice with letters and numbers. I also made felt finger puppets, wondering if I could sell my designs. At Christmas I gave one to each student in the class.

BLOWOUT

BLOWOUT

“Dear Ella,

“I tried to call you last Saturday—riffled through last year’s letters trying to find mention of a phone number at your Venice apartment—no luck. LA information didn’t have one either.

“The Bomb finally gave out. I sold it to a disreputable-looking guy for a demolition derby (where’s the *#&% dollar sign on this damn typewriter?)—for $30. Lizzy from one of my art classes was crestfallen. ‘Now you won’t have any more neat adventures to tell us about,’ she complained.

“The last neat adventure was a blowout on the freeway. I rode on the rim to the nearest shoulder, found out I was on a lengthy overpass with no apparent way down to the residential area below, was offered a ride by a young man who was petulantly irritated by my refusal. I then went down a hill of brambles in my dress shoes, saw at the bottom that I was surrounded by a six-foot cyclone fence, and turned to see that greasy young man had followed me. “Trapped,” he said, menacingly. I started to climb the fence. He was smiling, “You know what you need, lady?” Some adventure. By the way, I made it over the fence, but my skirt caught as I jumped down and wound up around my ears.

“Mutton chops, a.k.a. Mutty, my cockatiel, died of pneumonia with complications—a mineral imbalance or some such thing. I was force-feeding him Kaopectate, medicine, and baby food at the end. He died in the veterinary hospital. I was nearly in tears each time I took him in for his shots. He was having convulsions every half-minute. The vet sent me a note of sympathy after it was over.

“Arlen finally married Harry a couple of weeks ago at the Unitarian Church on the hill. The five-minute ceremony was held in the back courtyard with a panoramic view of the Bay Area as a backdrop. The minister read a Shakespeare love sonnet that Harry had chosen. Only fifteen or so people were present. Arlen is working now—as a file clerk. She’s unhappy because she’s clearly not as efficient as another girl they’ve just hired. Reminds me of you and your anxieties working at the V.A.

“And what’s new with you? (As I’m writing this I’m wondering if you’re even with us anymore. Maybe after our last phone marathon, you died of shock when your March bill arrived.)”

Arlen had gone back to Cal to finish her B.A. and get an elementary school teaching credential because her ex-husband, who’d left her for another woman and was now Vice Chancellor of one of the branches of U.C., gave her no alimony, only child support. So when their kids Jeff and Karen left for college, Arlen would be on her on. In group therapy at Cowell Hospital, where I’d seen Dr. C and Dr. F, she met Harry, who was seventeen years her junior and working on a Ph.D. in German Philology. She did earn a teaching credential, but decided belatedly she wasn’t cut out for the job—and wound up doing secretarial work instead.

CREATURES & OTHER

CREATURES & OTHER

Just like my faces, I started out drawing realistic depictions that soon became more whimsical and abstract.

Sometimes I just drew shapes.

So I was drawing again, but to what end?

FACES

FACES

While I began by drawing realistic faces from my imagination, they quickly became more stylized and eventually looser and more minimalistic as I continued to explore possibilities.

CHARACTERS

CHARACTERS

One day, as I was considering subjects for my art classes to draw, it occurred to me that I now had the skill to depict the fairy tale figures I couldn’t as a child (to my own satisfaction, at least—except in profile). So with pen and India ink I began to draw fanciful female characters that became more abstract as I went along, some of them even a little risqué. I designed a card with an angel at Christmas and started doodling animals, as well. Then I tried to market packages of my work as cards in a local shop but didn’t have any success. I also created a nude calendar, but that I never worked up the nerve to try to sell. I went through a number of artistic phases in rapid succession, beginning with realistic images that quickly became stylized and eventually abstract—important stages for me to go through because, perfectionist that I was, I’d always been meticulous in my drawing and bound by the literal. I needed both to explore a looser style and to exercise my pictorial imagination.

 

I couldn’t resist an inclination to push the envelope towards whimsy—tilting the neck at an improbable angle and drawing a tortuous root on the end of the rose, which I eventually decided to lop off.

How much can I lengthen the limbs, I wondered, before the figure starts to look misshapen?

How much can I exaggerate the features of the face, I asked myself, and still make it appealing?

Christmas 2021

Christmas 2021

This year Christmas with my godkids almost didn’t happen!

In the first place, the morning Arielle, Ella, and I were to go tree-shopping I woke up with a rough throat and thought: #%$! If I’ve got Covid, kiss Christmas good-bye! Luckily, there were still test kits available and within the hour I knew I was negative.

In the second, there was a shortage of trees again this year, thanks to California’s recurrent wildfires. At the first lot we went to there were only stunted rejects, while at the second the one noble fur worth considering was browning at the top. So I had to take it on faith when a worker claimed the tree wasn’t desiccated, it was sunburnt.

In the third, there was hurricane Ida. Because of her, Emma had been evacuated from Tulane University in the fall and spent unexpected weeks at home while the damage on campus was being repaired. Consequently they extended the semester to Dec. 23, one day after Ella flew down to southern California to spend Christmas with her brother. Which left only December 27 when we could all be together.

But then it turned out that Michael’s work shift started at 3:00 in the afternoon. So instead of an evening celebration, we had to have a makeshift Christmas luncheon that day. I set a festive table, anyway, with holly placemats and poinsettia napkin rings, and we ate out of plastic—takeout from Picante, a favorite restaurant of the kids. (By then, of course, our tree was dried up and sagging—the tinsel rope straggling all over the place and some ornaments touching the floor.)

Because our boom box gave out last year, this year Arielle created a Spotify playlist for Ella and me of all our favorite Christmas albums that we listened to as we ate, including songs by Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Celine Dion, Kathleen Battle, and Patrick Ball on the Celtic harp.

Ella and I hadn’t been able to find Bud’s eggnog— the best!—in any of the local stores, so we settled on Trader Joe’s, though Arielle abstained, determined this holiday season not to lose the definition in her abs.

As for the Christmas crafts we do always do together, when I went to buy sequins at Michael’s beforehand, the shelves were empty, so I ordered packets from two different companies—and paid a whopping shipping fee, though the merchandise weighed only a few ounces, to get it here in two days.

And that’s how we cobbled together a Christmas celebration!

I’m attaching photos of the candles we made—and of the nine sets of earrings Arielle also made.

COLLAGE CARDS

COLLAGE CARDS

We also did fold-dye, as I did years later with my godkids (see 9-9-19), only instead of using paper towels, I bought large sheets of elegant rice paper from a Japanese shop. Back then you could also buy a high-gloss transparent contact paper. So we created collage cards by arranging torn pieces of tissue paper on card stock that we fixed in place with the adhesive contact paper. Even after all these years the colors are still bright.

SMOTHERED

SMOTHERED

The two years I lived in L.A. felt like a series of failures to me, a demoralizing period when I discovered how straight-jacketed by my emotional problems I really was. I’d waited so many years to develop my creative abilities, only to find myself hamstrung by fears and insecurities so deeply rooted I didn’t know how to even begin to address them.

All I could think to do was try to work around them. I was so overcome with “performance fright” at my lessons with Charlie, for example, that my hands shook and I couldn’t play the assigned piece. So instead I had him show me how to do the fingering of my assignment for the following week—and went home and learned it without any further guidance.

When I tried to sell my dress designs, I was told I needed samples to show, so I borrowed a dress form from Arlen on a visit to the Bay Area, found an outlet that sold suede—lamb skins—in bright colors, bought a sewing machine that could handle lightweight leathers, and made up several vests and boleros with fanciful suede-on-suede appliques, the advantage of leather being that it didn’t ravel. But this, too, I found harrowing because I couldn’t afford to make mistakes—if I had to take out a seam, the punctures from the needle remained.

For a while, I had high hopes of earning a modest living as a substitute teacher at the elementary level—in Orange County you could get a provisional credential that didn’t require a fifth year of college—but then I found I couldn’t control the kids. My parents had disciplined me by intimidation and shaming, as I’ve said, methods I wasn’t willing to use, but, because I had no other models, I didn’t have any other tools at my disposal.

All these experiences weighed heavily on me, and once again I began to slide into depression. I seemed unable to take care of myself in certain ways; for one thing, I couldn’t manage to keep my gas tank filled and so would run out of gas and wind up stranded all over the place.

At the same time, I became zealous about my physical health and put myself on a strict health food diet, hoping that better nutrition would improve my emotional well-being too. Working my way towards becoming a vegetarian, I bought organic fruits and vegetables exclusively and ate only small amounts of poultry or fish. I wouldn’t even take an aspirin for a headache because I thought medication impaired the body’s natural functioning.

The only bright spots in my life were my visits with Ella. Some Saturdays I’d drive up to Santa Monica, where she shared an apartment with two roommates, and spend the weekend. My depression would lift spontaneously then, and I’d start feeling like a human being again. Ella was the one person in my life who reflected back to me a positive image of myself, who allowed me to see myself as attractive, smart, even funny. In her company I’d feel so normal that I couldn’t imagine ever becoming depressed again. But within an hour or two of my arrival back home, I’d feel a darkness descending over my spirit like a smothering blanket.

Above and below are two of the suede tops I made, the first without sleeves, and the second with a simpler border.

EVENTFUL

EVENTFUL

“Dear Linda,

“How are you? And Jim? And Psyche? And your little golden cottage?

“It’s been an incredibly eventful three months for me. Would you like a brief run-down? (On your mark…get set…)

“I quit Pan Am, shifted about Los Angeles, living with friends, families of friends, and friends of friends, applied to Long Beach State to study art, and moved to a tiny, secluded beach town. Now I’m settling in—finally!

“Sunset Beach is a strange place—two rows of houses along the ocean, just off the Pacific Coast Highway. On the beach side of the alley, the well-to-do, on the highway side, dilapidated beach houses and ‘heads’ (present company excepted). There’s a wooden shingled water tower at the end of the street, below that a tiny fire station (they turn their sirens on at 2:00 in the morning just for practice), bait stores, and an inlet full of boats. That’s it. The nearest grocery store is in the neighboring town.

“I share a modern, perpetually messy apartment with three roommates. One of them, Gloria, is at this very moment dismantling her fish tank, preparing to move. She works for the YMCA, while Carol and Michaela are undergrads at State. I sleep in the hot, stuffy, upper berth of a bunk bed, the mattress so hard that my body ached all over for the first week. Oh, and when Michaela moves, down below, it feels like earth tremors.

“I got a job as a noon supervisor or ‘narc’ at Marina High School—making sure the kids didn’t smoke in the johns, etc. Then my old boyfriend Pete, the guy I met in Spain, sent a letter asking me to come and stay with him in an adobe hut in the mountains of Guatemala. I almost went, even quit my job, but changed my mind at the last minute.

“The weather has been glorious the past few days, and our beach has been invaded by bikinis and black wetsuits. Still, there are uninhabited hours when you can pull off your sweatshirt and run bare-breasted in the surf. But the evenings are lonely, looking down on an empty sand-blown street, with the wind howling around.

“I hope you’re feeling chipper and accomplishing all you want to. You seemed a little depressed when I was in Berkeley. (I know I was.)”

THE BOMB

THE BOMB

Dazed, I wondered what to do next, since you can’t live in L.A. without a car. An acquaintance of mine took me to see a hideous wreck a friend of his was selling for $50—garishly aqua, it was the size of an ocean liner and had huge fins. We took it out for a cruise, and when we stopped at a gas station a couple of blocks from my apartment, the attendant, a kid of maybe eighteen, exclaimed over it and offered to trade me his car—a sedate gray Olds in equally dreadful condition. I left him the Queen Mary and took the Olds, agreeing to meet him Monday, when the DMV would be open, to do the paperwork.

But when Monday came, he’d disappeared. It turned out he’d stolen money from the gas station, been apprehended by the military police (he was AWOL from the Army), and been shipped back to Fort Carson, Colorado. I wrote him in the stockade, begging him to send me the pink slip. In the meantime, in the trunk of the “Bomb,” as I came to call the Olds, I found some of his private possessions, including a picture of a teenage girl with a baby that I figured were probably his wife and child.

With a courteous note of apology, he promptly sent me the pink slip. But wherever I drove the Bomb over the next two years, the Highway Patrol invariably stopped me, knowing at a glance they could find something that didn’t work to cite me for.