When I’d felt everything was falling apart, I’d moved in with Celeste, a friend of my mother’s who was renovating an old Victorian house with extra bedrooms she wanted to rent out. (As psychiatric social workers, she and my mom were working together at Herrick hospital at the time.) Nevertheless, there was a night I chose to spend at Linda’s. In my journal I wrote:

I remember thrashing around in Linda’s bed that night and her putting out her hand to quiet me—then my efforts to stay still and in one spot, feeling claustrophobic in my dreams, like I was going to burst out all over.

I remember sitting at her kitchen table earlier in the evening and starting to cry and not seeing anything after that, except her hand reaching out across the table and gently resting on my arm.

I remember telling her about my argument with Rick about money and his maxim that it was OK to borrow from family but not friends. “He doesn’t realize that for some of us, our friends are our family,” she said.

“Maybe the men we might have been interested in died in Vietnam,” she mused later. And gave me a little book to read with bad poetry and good advice about how to get over a lost love. It made me laugh a little and cry a little until I started to doze off with it in my hand. She got up to turn off the TV and the lights—and then got up five minutes later to get a some warm socks to cover my cold feet.

Another night I dreamed I was to go alone by kayak to an island I had never seen. It was a gray, watery, utterly hopeless dream that had a bleakness difficult to describe. I remember a long wait in a queue of people in front of a narrow canal. When my turn came, I squatted down in the hole of a welded-metal kayak and fitted a steel chest plate over myself and put on a boxy helmet with glass eyepieces to keep out the spray. Then I remember a journey through labyrinthian blank tunnels that went on and on—and only ended with my waking.



The union intervened on my behalf, as I’ve said, and saved my job at Tiburon College.

A year or so later, I ran into Lisa in the card shop where she now clerked.

“So have you heard from Rick?” I asked.

“As a matter of fact, I talked to him a couple of weeks ago.”

“And how’s he doing?”

“Getting rich, I guess,” Lisa shrugged. “He bragged that he’d bought a new Mercedes—and admitted he was putting a lot of money up his nose.”

Sometime later—months…years?—I remembered the dream I’d had about Rick, his head covered up to his eyeballs in dough, and finally made the connection between the two meanings of dough.



Seely woke up the next morning in a whimsical mood. She lay on her side with her knees tucked up to her chin, croaking a little tune and pumping her feet in time. Then she was quiet, listening. She could hear soft, padding feet overhead—Franny was up— then clomping—Zeke and his clogs were on their way to the bathroom. She smiled to herself, then determinedly frowned, “It’s ridiculous!” she said out loud. “He’s red-faced, balding, and squat…and he looks like he belongs in a butcher’s apron.”

When she went up to breakfast, Zeke was holding his head in his hands and staring around rather wildly.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I’ve got to get this place cleaned up,” he cried. “I’m supposed to show it tomorrow! Franny, out of the way!”

Franny lay with her bewhiskered muzzle on her paws, looking woeful as always, but stood up expectantly when she heard her name.

“Aw,” said Seely, “She wants to help.”

Whereupon Zeke lifted Franny’s front paws and stood her at the sink.

“You wash, Kiddo,” he directed, “and I’ll dry.”

Seely made them scrambled eggs. Later, when Zeke went off to the bank, she examined the floor. I looked like it hadn’t been scrubbed in years—there was a layer of grease around the legs of the old-fashioned stove so thick she’d have to scrape it off with a pancake turner. She twisted her long hair into a pony tail and stuck it down the back of her sweatshirt to keep it out of her face, then got down on all fours with a bucket of water and an assortment of scouring pads. She worked with a will, determined to have the whole thing done by the time Zeke got back to surprise him. But when he finally did, it was still only half-done.

“What are you doing?” He looked aghast.

“Cleaning?” she suggested hopefully. For the old linoleum was so discolored that, minus a greasy sheen, the after looked no different than the before.

“Ah, Cinderella,” he said plaintively, pulling her up by her blanched and puckered hands. “Why are you so nice to me?”




My sun porch bedroom, I discovered to my dismay, was so hot in summer it might as well have been a barbecue pit, so cold in winter a meat locker. For this reason—and also because I wanted to be nearer the college—after eight months on Hillegass, I moved to a little house built into a hillside in a rustic neighborhood—with an architect, Rick, and his other roomer Lisa, who spent most of her time at her boyfriend’s place. It was December, and I promised Rick I’d look after his English wolfhound, Frieda, while he was in Chicago for the holidays. What he failed to mention—until he got back—was that he was planning to sell the house, relocate to Chicago, and buy a seat—for $200,000—on the Chicago Board of Trade.



“My first evening in my new home, I lugged the double mattress Rick had recently bought into the laundry room to make space for my single mattress in the tiny basement bedroom that only briefly, I would learn belatedly, would be mine.

“But once I was tucked into bed, I got spooked, what with the whole house creaking and windows rattling, it was such a windy night. So I dragged Frieda downstairs and posted her by my bedside to protect me. When she whimpered so loudly I could even hear her through my earplugs, I reassigned her to the hall—and still I woke up only a few hours later to pitch blackness. Too agitated to go back to sleep, I decided to fix up my room.

“Naively, I sawed down my old bookcase boards to fit the far wall, unpiled my books and treasures onto the shelves, and custom-trimmed my matchstick blinds with pruning shears. When I carted my fake fur rug into the laundry room to wash it, there in the middle of the floor, beside a contrite-looking Frieda, was a big puddle of dog piddle. Blearily, I started the washing machine, leaving the bleach bottle on top, thinking I’d add the bleach when the machine had filled—and went upstairs to hunt up a mop.

“I must have been gone longer than I thought because when I got back, I found the bleach bottle on the floor—it must have shimmied off the washer when it started agitating—the cap had come off, and now a gallon of bleach and urine was oozing slowly down the slanted floor toward Rick’s new mattress.

“Unable to breathe, the smell of chlorine was so overpowering, I struggled to open the window behind the washer, but it was hard to reach and I couldn’t budge it. So I tried to bang the frame a few times to loosen it, missed, and shattered window instead, gashing my hand.

“With only seconds to spare, I ran for a rag to wrap up my hemorrhaging hand, and when the puddle was maybe a millimeter from the mattress, I hoisted it in the air, like Atlas, and started to carry it over the puddle. The mattress was so heavy, however, my knees buckled, and it folded around me like sandwich bread around a slice of bologna. Suffocating, I heroically I held on, nevertheless—and delivered it to safety.

“As soon as the stores opened, though I was dead on my feet, I bought some putty and a pane of glass, only to discover when I got home that the putty was blue. Too tired to return it, I puttied in the window anyway and decided to worry about what tall tale to tell Rick…later.”



“Cameron, aging painting instructor and chairman, was debonair and chatty, adept at drawing you unwittingly into his little conspiracies against whomever he happened to be annoyed with.

“Miriam, art historian, was diminutive, brittle, and emphatic. She went around with the air of controlled ill-temper of someone whose shoes pinch. She had a snug cap of fair hair and a hooked nose—and Seely found her intimidating, except during faculty meetings, when she had a lot of sandwich between her teeth. Seely supposed she’d resented having had to play second fiddle in the Art History Department for years, so now that the first fiddle was on sabbatical, she was stridently determined to be heard.

“Marcus, at 40, was the enfant terrible of the department—shy, foulmouthed, antic, volatile. He wore purple sneakers, played in a rock band, and was Cameron’s unruly protégé. He ducked his head and his eyes darted in all directions but yours in a conversation, and he was a terrific art snob now that his photographs were exhibited the best museums.

“George was the invisible sculptor. An indifferent artist and teacher, people said, he blinked naively behind lenses that doubled the size of his eyes, looking forever like some innocuous alien. No one seemed able to muster much feeling about him one way or the other, except occasional outrage that he had tenure.”

This Art Department provided my initiation into the world of office politics. The first time I realized what I was up against was when a distinguished Italian sculptor came to the college to give a series of lectures. Because he’d been invited by George, without the approval of the rest of the faculty, they treated this aging dignitary with studied coldness. (Before he left, he graciously gave me an original etching for my help.) I don’t know that I would have chosen to stay on if I hadn’t managed to convince myself that as a lowly secretary, I could fly beneath the radar, clear of faculty’s squabbles and intrigues. What I didn’t know until the end of my first semester there was that I’d been on an administration higher-up’s radar screen the whole time.

No less than the Vice President of the college had set out to get me fired. This was a political move, I eventually figured out. The clericals’ union had set down some guidelines—not requirements, though the VP pretended they were—for level-three secretaries, including that they be able to type 65 words a minute. Now that the shop steward had resigned, the Vice President hoped to create turmoil wherever he could, spuriously blaming the union, so they would be voted out. When I finally understood what was going on, I appealed to Local 29, which intervened on my behalf, sending a representative to meet with the Vice President. I don’t know what they said to him, but they saved my job—and a couple of years later I learned, to my secret satisfaction, that the Vice President himself was fired.

As much as I’d like to believe in karma as a mechanism for justice from one incarnation the next, I can’t quite firm up the conviction, but what I can believe—what I’ve witnessed time and time again—is karma at work in this life.



Barbara, a client of my mother’s, was leaving her position as secretary of the Art Department at Tiburon College and put in a good word for me when I applied for the job. I’d been living hand-to-mouth on minimum wage—doing everything from wok demonstrations (slinging fried rice) at Handyman and Sears to housekeeping gigs that involved chores like washing windows in the rain—so I had every digit crossed on the way to my interview. When I took the typing test, however, my hands shook so badly I couldn’t even keep them on the right row of keys. After the timer went off, I saw I’d invented a new alphabet with a large smattering of numerals, more impenetrable even than Russian. I collapsed on the lawn in front of the administration building and cried. But a week later I found out that Cameron had hired me anyway. “Actually, there isn’t all that much typing to do,” he told me later in person with an airy wave of his clawed hand.



He was an elderly man with long, protruding ears that looked rather spectacularly pink with the sun shining through them. A few strands of hair were combed across his barren head from far left to far right, and the pale bristly goatee that encircled his mouth reminded Seely of a vegetable brush. He also had, she noticed with some alarm, a huge black, witchy thumbnail that he was using as a letter opener.

“So! You’re interested in Barbara’s position?” he began in an aggrieved tone, as though she were responsible for Barbara’s leaving. She saw or guessed that he was irritated by the necessity of meeting with her—that he simply wanted the perfect secretary delivered to him and considered having to select her himself a bother and an imposition. After a fussy little gesture over the paisley scarf he wore around his neck, he leaned forward with a sigh of resignation and sank his chin in his hand, apparently waiting for Seely to conduct her own interview. She blinked and gulped, inadvertently grabbing her stomach, where her panic had landed. Then she began, in an admirably calm and measured voice, which only cracked twice, to do just that.

“You’re probably wondering about my qualifications…”



“Last night we celebrated Carolyn’s birthday—three ailing females, languishing on the mattress-sofa, swapping flu germs—while Steve, her boyfriend, served us dinner.

“’Well, you’ve got three choices,’ he announced. ‘B & M beans, boiled hot dogs, or canned spaghetti.’ Then he brought out a platter of chicken in a cream and wine sauce.

“‘You know, a camper horned in on our campsite late last night,’ said Carolyn.

“’Yeah, they woke us up playing reveille,’ said Steve.

“’They caroused and yelled, ‘Kill the commies’—and kept us awake all night long. Steve and I huddled in our tent plotting our revenge.’

“’You should have put tacks under their wheels,’ suggested Susan.

“’But that would have been tactless,’ shrugged Steve.

“’Why not peanut butter in their carburetor…or tomato juice in their fuel tank?’ I offered.

“’What?’ cried, Carolyn. ‘And waste all that food?’

“When Steve finally brought out the birthday cake—with chocolate frosting and candy sprinkles—Carolyn tried to blow out the candles with a hair dryer for Steve’s sake, so he wouldn’t get sick too, but accidentally yanked it out of the wall and missed the last two candles. So much for birthday wishes.”


Living with two artists, as I’ve said, was a revelation to me. Until I met them, I hadn’t realized how stimulating creative people could be, which made me feel for the first time that maybe I had something to offer as well. Until then I’d imagined that, not being supremely intellectual—which was my father’s standard—I couldn’t expect to be interesting and engaging to anyone else.



About the time I joined the Sierra Club Singles, I began to write some of my autobiographical vignettes in the third person, imagining that I would eventually develop them into short stories or a novel. I named my protagonist Seely, short for Selena, meaning “moon.” (Originally, I was going to call her Celie, for Celine, until I discovered it meant “blind”—not so inappropo after all, as events would prove.)

It was a misty morning at Barnacle Beach. Seely felt ridiculously overdressed in her heavy down jacket and ponderous backpack, straggling behind hikers in jogging shorts, their only encumbrance the Nikes strung around their necks. She had come prepared for any weather, her pockets stuffed with mittens and earmuffs. At the moment, however, she wore a broad-brimmed, floppy straw hat which the kleptomaniac wind kept trying to swipe off her head; she had to pull it so far down over her eyebrows to secure it that she could only see a few feet in front of her, unless she craned her head back, which she did until she got a painful crick.

A roly-poly man named Jason, who had squarish teeth with great gaps between them—his smile reminded her of washcloths strung out on a clothesline—escorted her along the water line. He told her he was an insurance loss-prevention agent.

“I go to construction sites—” he began.

“And stand below and catch anyone who falls off?” Seely suggested.

“No, actually, I have a net,” he grinned.

After a short distance they came to a huge jag of rock that angled down into the water and blocked their path. It was steep and unscalable, so there was nothing to be done but dash around it during the ebb of a wave. Seely, who had rolled her jeans up to her thighs and tied her bulky jacket around her waist, made a concerted scramble, but emerged with soggy cuffs and jacket tails.

On the other side, the cliff was eroded to form enormous columns, like a vast set of organ pipes. The two of them clambered up the bank and squeezed themselves into the hollows between the pillars, which were perfectly round, covered with moss, and tunneled up fifty feet. Jason had some difficulty prying himself out again, but, thanks to Seely’s calm cliffside manner, didn’t get unduly alarmed about his predicament.

Everywhere across the sand, bits of scarlet seaweed were strewn like autumn leaves. Seely found a long, rubbery piece of seaweed that looked like a donkey’s tail. When she brandished it like a whip, Jason roared, “If you hit me with that, I’ll yell for kelp!” Just then, a particularly wily wave ambushed them from the side and sent them tumbling over each other to escape its foamy clutches.



“Last night, coming back from disco class with Susan, I yelled on the top landing that it was hopeless—I was never going to find a job I liked—and I dived halfway out the open window, flailing my arms and leg (the other foot planted firmly on the ground).

“’I’m going to end it all,’ I wailed.

“’You can’t do that yet!’ Susan cried, dragging me back by the coattails. ‘You haven’t paid your part of the phone bill!’


“This evening, outside my window, I hear the sounds of the city showering—the first time since I moved to Berkeley. Nearer at hand, I fancy a bird inhabits the rain gutter, it chirps so musically with trickling water at the corner beyond my desk. I have an unimpeded view, across several back lots, of a neighbor watching TV with his feet propped up on something on the one…two…three…seventh floor. Mornings I see him doing push-ups, his head bobbing rhythmically above the projection of his balcony, like something in a carnival target-shoot booth. Singing gaily, I dress in front of him, hoping that, despite the distance, he can still distinguish my secondary sex characteristics. Who knows? Maybe if I sing loud and long enough, he’ll buy opera glasses.”



As I mention earlier in Callie’s Ragbag, I was in my twenties when I wandered into a shop, searching for books for my classroom, and happened upon Where the Wild Things Are. When I got to the last line, it went right through me—whomp!—hit bedrock. I had to stand there awhile, fighting back tears, trying to compose myself. That was the moment, I’ve always known, that my wish to write children’s books took root. Some time later—weeks?…months?… I sat down with a pencil, munched on the end of it a while—but couldn’t come up with a single idea. “Eventually,” as I wrote in my long bio, “I concluded that I couldn’t write fiction and turned to journaling instead, imagining that maybe I could become a diarist like Anais Nin—though without a famous paramour like Henry Miller, I had my doubts that anyone would ever read my work.”

Now as I cast around in my mind for more ways to earn a living, I came up with the idea of teaching a mini-course I’d call “The Journal as Art.” As an experiment, I advertised it in the Bay Guardian as free 4-week course—and attracted a handful of students, only to find that it wasn’t a comfortable fit for me because I was too insecure about my own opinions to edit and critique other people’s work. But Vitalee, a newly arrived New Yorker—who’d just broken up with the boyfriend she’d traveled across the country with—became a new (and now old) friend and a month later, along with my roommate Susan, we were taking disco dancing lessons together.