Author Archive

Night of the cane toads

A female cane toad. Image from Wikipedi

I recently asked my son Simon, now in his fifties, if he remembered anything of our visit to New Zealand when he was two. He thought for a moment. “I remember the frogs.” Ah yes, the frogs. Actually they were cane toads, but a two-year-old doesn’t bother with such distinctions.

 Our flight from San Francisco to Auckland had a six-hour layover at Nandi, Fiji. When we arrived in Nandi at 4:00 am, we learned that the airline had very kindly provided a motel room so that we and the children could get a little rest. Tony and I looked forward to this. We were flying Qantas Airlines, and a bunch of young Australians partied all night in the rows behind us, oblivious to the flight attendant’s efforts to keep them quiet. The children, however, would have none of this going-to-bed nonsense. Their circadian rhythms completely out of whack, Simon and his brother were bright-eyed and ready for adventure.

Listen to cane toads calling

We heard the toads first, a continuous high-pitched purring that filled the warm tropical night like the sound of a smoothly running motor boat. Then we saw them. Near the motel swimming pool stood a pole with a bug-zapping lamp attached. On the ground below, hundreds of cane toads clustered, waiting for the next flying creature to drop. The children were enthralled. Fortunately we did not allow them to go near the creatures, who can secrete a toxic poison.

A cluster of cane toads. Image from https://soundslikenoise.org

The cane toad (Rhinella marina) is native to South and Central America. In 1935 they were introduced to Fiji and other places to control beetles on sugarcane plantations. The trouble was, the toads couldn’t jump high enough to eat the beetles, which live on top of cane stalks. With no natural predator in their new home, the cane toads bred in large numbers, and have proved to be an environmental disaster. They have voracious appetites, and will feed on almost any terrestrial animal and compete with native amphibians for food and breeding habitats. Their toxic secretions are known to cause illness and death in wildlife and in domestic animals that come into contact with them.

The cane toad disaster is a classic example of humans disturbing an ecological balance, inadvertently creating a new problem as they try to solve an existing one. Thinking about that tropical night makes me realize how little we still know about the complex interactions of the natural world. But on a personal, selfish note, the Fiji motel toads did provide entertainment for two rambunctious little boys.

The best laid schemes

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley                             
                        –Robert Burns

I’ll never forget how furious my mother was with me that day. I was about seven years old, and spending the day at my grandparents’ house while Mum ran last-minute errands. The next morning my parents, sisters and I were to leave on a camping trip, the first real vacation my family had ever had; Dad was an auto mechanic, and summer was his busiest time, with all the beach-goers flocking into our seaside town and needing help with their vehicles.

That afternoon I started to feel poorly. Grandma felt my forehead and promptly tucked me into bed. By the time Mum bustled in to pick me up the cause of my misery was obvious: my body covered with the red blisters of chickenpox.

passport coverThe memory of my mother weeping with disappointment came back to me two decades later. My husband, children and I were living in California, and could finally afford a return trip to New Zealand, our home country, after seven years abroad. My letters to parents for the previous several months had been full of plans and itineraries. About three weeks before our scheduled flight, David, our almost five-year old, came down with chickenpox. We phoned with the news. A few days later I wrote:

11 May 1968
I did write to you earlier in the week, but it was obsolete before it was even posted, so I tore it up instead. Isn’t this business just typical of kids? Anyway, here is the present state of play: we have bookings … [revised details]… But this flight depends on Simon [our two-year-old] coming out in spots this weekend, or Tuesday at the latest. The chances are higher that we shall postpone again until the following week …

Here is my calculation of the odds: Incubation period 11-21 days. Say David came out in spots on the 11th day, and Simon, from the same contact, on the 21st day (i.e., next Friday) he has two weeks to have it over with.

Say Simon missed David’s contact, and gets it from David, he can come out in spots on the 11th, 12th, or 13th day, and has 11 days, or a reasonable chance, to be free of scabs. (The airline will take him if a doctor will certify that he is not contagious.)

Say Simon decides not to get it at all, he will have passed the 21st day by two days.

The only problem will be if he gets it from David after the 13th day. The 14th day is borderline; after that we would have to cancel. We are in a bit of a quandary as to what to do then … Meanwhile we are all twiddling our thumbs, and willing Simon to produce ‘chickenpops’, as he calls them. It seems such an awful thing to do to such an innocent little poppet, but so far he has remained obstinately clear-skinned and perky…

The ironic thing is that we had a mumps crisis last week. One of the children’s closest friends came down with mumps about two weeks ago. We flapped around for a while, seriously considered gamma globulin, in spite of the cost (about $60 just for shots for myself and the children). We had braced ourselves to go through with it, when at the last minute the doctor just couldn’t get hold of any, so decided to try a new mumps vaccine instead. This is a lifelong immunity, but doesn’t take full effect for a month. By this time, he hoped that the vaccine would have built up enough antibodies to resist the disease. So far it is working. It is quite interesting being guinea-pigs, and considerably less expensive, at only $5 each. So instead we get the chickenpox!

…I have just come in from a walk – after four days in the house with kids, I needed it, but have come back feeling more depressed than ever about the whole business.

Monday – Have postponed until 31 May…

20 May 1968
Believe it or not, Simon actually produced some ‘chickenpops’ today, so we have started believing again that we are really coming. … I’m still not really convinced that we will arrive, but as we are going in this Wednesday to pick up the tickets, I had better stir myself out of this legarthy.

The irony of this story is that when we finally arrived at Nandi, Fiji on our way to New Zealand, the immigration officer noticed that David’s smallpox vaccination was outdated. (You needed this at that time to get into New Zealand). In our panic over chickenpox, we has totally spaced on this detail. Fortunately the officer was kind “Just get it done as soon as you get there,” he said as he stamped our papers.

 

Uncles & cousins & aunts, oh my!

Recently, while reading Michael Krasny’s new book, Let There Be Laughter, I came across the Yiddish word naches, which Krasny defines as “the joy and pride a parent derives from a child’s accomplishments.” High on a mother’s list of accomplishments for her daughter would be the production of beautiful grandchildren. It was an ‘Aha!’ moment. I’d been re-reading some of my 1967-68 letters to parents (my mother saved them all and gave them back to me) and thinking about the strained mother/daughter relationship the letters revealed.

The occasion was our first visit back to New Zealand. It had been seven years since we left our birth country, and twelve years since I had spent more than a week or two with my parents. In the meantime I had earned an advanced degree, begun a career as a writer, married, moved to England, had a couple of children, moved to California. I had kept in touch faithfully through fortnightly letters but had had none of that face-to-face interaction that helps define a relationship.

I was wildly excited about the trip:

18 Sept. 1967
I have a bit of news that I have been saving up, partly because I still scarcely believe it myself – we are hoping to come for a visit to NZ about the middle of next year, probably in May. It will only be for a month – you get a cheaper excursion rate for 28 days – but hope that will be long enough to see everybody again, & for the children to sort out who all the vague names of grandmas, uncles, etc. are – David [our 4-year-old] has them hopelessly confused at the moment.

1 Oct. 1967
[On news that sisters & cousins were having babies] It will be fun to meet all these new members of the family – they certainly seem to be mounting up.

31 Oct. 1967
[re Christmas presents] Like you, finance is a bit low this year – as you can imagine, we are needing to save very hard for this trip.

My next letter has a firmer tone. With the help of a marriage & family therapist friend (thank you, Linda G.), I’ve been researching the psychology of mother/daughter relationships and discovered the Jungian concept of individuation, the process of becoming aware of oneself as a being separate from one’s parents. I also learned that tensions are normal in the parent and adult child relationship during this process of separating and setting boundaries.

17 Nov. 1967
I gather that preparations are already being made for our homecoming in May. I hope you realise that our time is going to be extremely limited. We hope to divide most of it between you & [my husband’s mother], but also must go to Christchurch for a few days, and also have friends around the country that we hope to visit. So you would do well to reckon on about a week (don’t forget flying time is included in the 28 days). This week will have to include relations too. The plan for an open day or weekend sounds a good one. I had better make it plain from the start that, apart from our immediate brothers & sisters, and possibly grandparents if they are too infirm to travel, we are not going to do any relation-visiting. For one thing, it wouldn’t be fair to the kids, dragging them round from one set of strange faces to another. If you are going to get to know them at all, which from our point of view is the purpose of the visit, we will need a quiet domestic atmosphere with as few strange faces as possible. It took David four months to adjust to living in this country. Also, two days of being an exhibition piece is about as much as T. or I could stand – we are pretty unsociable types!

grandchildren

The idealized grandchildren, Nov. 1967. Photos by Tony Eppstein

Here’s where the Yiddish concept of naches comes in. Looking back, I realize now that it mattered deeply to my mother to be able to show us off. She had never seen our children, her first grandchildren, other than in photographs, and she had idealized them. But as a young mother, I was having none of it:

5 Dec. 1967
Glad you see my point about visiting relations, though reading your letter again I have a suspicion that you intend to have them turning up all the time anyway. If this is so, please think again. I know, Mum, you love to have your family about you, and find it hard to understand my attitude. But to me my family is my husband and children, and next, my parents and brothers and sisters. Now I shall be delighted to meet all my uncles and my cousins and my aunts, but since practically all of them are almost total strangers, it would be much easier on us to restrict their visits to a definite two days, and leave us free for the rest of the time to do what we came for, which is to visit you.

In my psychology reading I came across another concept, filial maturity, explained as:

1) By early adulthood, particularly in the 30s, taking on the responsibilities and status of an adult (employment, parenthood, involvement in the community), the child begins to identify with the parent.

2) Eventually, the parent and child relate to each other more like equals.

When I wrote these letters about our forthcoming trip to New Zealand I was 29. After fifty years of being a mother and a grandmother, I now understand why my mother and I were at odds. I’m sorry she had to deal with such a difficult and demanding daughter. I also know this was the way it had to be.

 

What place have we come to?

Martin Luther King photo

Martin Luther King at Selma, 1965. Image from www.history.com

I grew up in a country with strict gun control laws. In New Zealand in the 1940s and ‘50s, you needed a permit and a “proper and sufficient purpose” to acquire a firearm, and all weapons had to be licensed and registered. Automatic pistols were outlawed altogether. My dad kept a rifle in a locked closet, taking it out occasionally to go hunting for feral pigs with his friends. But guns were not part of my small town landscape. Even today, New Zealand police officers do not routinely carry firearms.

CDC graph

CDC graph comparing vehicle crash-related deaths to firearm-related deaths.

Imagine my state of mind then, when the newspapers of my newly adopted country ran daily news stories about firearm-related deaths. Looking back now at government statistics, I see that in 1968 the US, with a population of 200.7 million, had about 31,400 firearm deaths. (Since the Center for Disease Control bundled multiple years 1968-1980, this is an average.) CDC, in a 1994 report, predicted that people killed by firearms would by 2003 outnumber vehicle crash-related deaths. Louis Jacobson, in a PunditFact article, verifies Nicholas Kristof’s 2015 statement that “More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.”

On April 4, 1968, our family had been in the US less than a year. My husband Tony was in Washington, DC for an international magnetics conference. On March 30 I wrote to my parents: He is very excited about this, especially as he hopes to meet some of his friends from England who are expected there.

 About a week later I wrote again:

10 April 1968
Tony also got involved last week in America’s other big trauma – the race riots following Dr. King’s assassination. He had great difficulty getting out of Washington on Friday [April 5], but fortunately the flight crew of his plane had the same problem, so managed to catch his correct flight a couple of hours late. I gather that the conference was very successful and useful, if somewhat exhausting.

Reading these words again today, I notice the calm, distancing tone. I couldn’t tell my parents that I was terrified. Tony had described to me the view from the night sky: cities in flames all across America.

Two months later, on June 5, 1968, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, shortly after winning the California presidential primaries in the 1968 election.

Chicago convention demonstrations

Police lead a demonstrator from Grant Park during demonstrations that disrupted the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. (AP) Image from https://www.washingtonpost.com/

Yet more public and political mayhem was to come. In August we endured reports of the violent clashes between police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In its report Rights in Conflict (better known as the Walker Report), the Chicago Study Team that investigated the incident stated that the police response was characterized by:

…unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night. That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in, the areas where confrontations were occurring.

I have to agree with Haynes Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who was covering the convention. He wrote in a 2013 Smithsonian Magazine story that the convention was

…a lacerating event, a distillation of a year of heartbreak, assassinations, riots and a breakdown in law and order that made it seem as if the country were coming apart.

 

A roof and a meal in 1968 dollars

While rereading letters dated early 1968 from California to my New Zealand parents, I discovered a conversation about the cost of housing and the cost of living generally. If you’ve seen the current astronomical real estate prices in the San Francisco Bay Area you will be mind-boggled at the numbers. For that matter, housing prices have also risen dramatically in New Zealand cities. (To take inflation into account, multiply the US 1968 numbers by 7.2)

The conversation started with mention that friends in the apartment complex where we lived had bought a house.

2 Jan. 1968
On Sunday we spent the afternoon at the J___s’ new house – they have managed to acquire a lovely rural acre running down to a creek – we are very envious.

26 Jan. 1968
You asked about the price of housing. Well, the J___s got theirs extremely cheaply, because of some easements on the property – power lines restrict building on one corner, and a road may possibly go down the side of it. Normally such a place would go for between $45,000 and $50,000 – they got it for under $35,000. Housing is generally pretty expensive here. If you want a genuine or potential slum you only have to pay about $18,000, but the vast majority of ordinary middle class suburban houses – about equivalent to the typical NZ suburban house – come in the range $22,000 to $28,000. New houses in this area, that is, the west side of the [Santa Clara] valley, are all $35,000 and up. Down payment is between 10%–25%. Which puts us out of the housing market for some time.

Just for comparison, what would an equivalent house in NZ cost now? The outer suburbs of Auckland or Wellington, for instance. It would also be interesting to compare costs of living – could you find out for me how much it would cost per week to keep house for a family like ours, for instance?

27 Feb. 1968
Thank you for the list of prices etc. Costs certainly seem to be fairly high. Your power bill is about the same as ours, and so is the telephone. Houses in NZ seem to be about half our price, but rents considerably lower – we are paying $160 a month, or $40 a week, and this is pretty reasonable for this area. To get a house we would have to pay $225 or more.

1968 grocery ad

A 1968 grocery ad from the archives of the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Your food bill is certainly much cheaper than mine. I have $40 a week for housekeeping, of which about $20 goes on groceries, $4 on fruit and vegetables, $5 on meat (and this is pretty frugal – we practically never eat steak, for instance. In fact, our standard of living hasn’t changed much from what it was in England.) The rest goes on miscellaneous sundries – sewing notions [I sewed all my own and the children’s clothes], postage, haircuts – at $3 a go for an ordinary cut it’s just well I don’t go in for sets, perms, etc., and the boys’ hair I cut myself.

…This seems to be turning into a grouch about costs, which is not really fair, as salary levels are comparably higher. At present we are managing to save about 10% of Tony’s salary, which is better than we have ever done.   

Those new houses in Cupertino that in 1968 were selling for $35,000 are now listed at over $2,000,000. That’s eight times the inflation rate. Economists might say that’s the law of supply and demand.

Summer of 1967: an immigrant’s view

A 1967 poster. Image from http://clickamericana.com/

San Francisco, 1967. Sunday afternoon at Maritime Park. About twenty young black men sit on a low sea wall, bongo drums between their knees, thrumming an intoxicating rhythm. A crowd has gathered. Picnicking on the beach, my husband, children and I listen too, enthralled by the joyous sound. We have spent the morning exploring the old ships at the Hyde Street pier. Later in the day we explore the new tourist attraction of Ghiradelli Square.

Our 4-year-old’s impression of the historic ships.

In a letter to parents I wrote:  … an old chocolate factory now converted into an arty plaza and shopping centre with fountains, outdoor restaurants, etc. … One of the most interesting places was the Children’s Art Centre – just a little gallery for exhibitions of children’s paintings, and free paper and crayons for any infant who felt like drifting in and drawing a bit.

New to California, we had heard of the hippies in the Haight/Ashbury district, so on our way home to Cupertino we detoured along Haight Street. Sure enough, we passed storefronts with funky signage, long-skirted young women with hair held by braided headbands,  long-haired and bearded young men in tie-dyed tee-shirts, a group playing music on a corner. Like travelers viewing exotic fauna, we gawked and drove on.

Image from buzzfeed.com

It is only now, looking back, I realize how little we understood of what we were seeing. The flower children who poured into San Francisco in what is now known as the Summer of Love were an eclectic group, revolutionary in their rejection of consumerist values, opposition to the Vietnam war, and embrace of free love, drugs, art and music. But this counterculture had a historical context, and this as immigrants we did not possess. I remember where I was when I learned in 1963 that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Like my English neighbors, I was shocked. But I did not experience that communal sharing of grief my American contemporaries remember. On British television I saw newsreel images of civil rights marchers being attacked by snarling dogs, fire hoses, and baton-wielding cops. But that was in some barbaric, far-off country. From the BBC news reports about Vietnam, it was obvious that American military involvement was a disaster, bound to fail as the French had before them. I’d not yet grasped the deadly impact of the draft on young American men.

Over the decades that followed our first summer in the US, I gradually filled in my knowledge gaps, mainly through snippets of personal information: a teacher who dodged the draft by moving to Canada, a veteran who came back from the war physically and psychologically maimed, a man who as a student registered voters in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, a doctor and his poet wife who were cast out of their New England village because of their opposition to the Vietnam war. I took part in fair housing studies, and learned first-hand the effects of racism. I read histories of the period. But there has always been for me a sense of distance, a sense of being an outsider when my contemporaries discuss the experiences of their youth. I believe this sense of distance is true of all immigrants who come to this country as adults. Try as we might to ‘become Americans,’ we simply cannot share in the memory of those collective experiences that have shaped the early lives of our American-born neighbors and friends.

However, it has been fifty years since our arrival as new immigrants, since that summer of 1967. Over the years, new national crises and issues have unfolded. We have reacted to them, talked about them with friends, shared in community actions. We learned to belong. We too have finally become part of the American story.

The rain in Camelot

When I arrived in California from England’s green and rainy land, I thought I must have landed in Camelot. Remember that song from the 1960 Lerner & Loewe musical?

The rain may never fall till after sundown
By eight, the morning fog must disappear
In short, there’s simply not a more congenial spot
For happy-ever-after-ing than here in Camelot

It rained for a week or two after we arrived, from late May into early June. My new neighbors kvetched, “Enough already!” After a normal rainy winter, early spring had been dry. Now the rains had started back up, and they didn’t like it. I, however, was enchanted. It truly only rained at night; the days were warm and sunny.

weather chart

Cupertino weather historical averages. From http://www.intellicast.com/

Eventually the rain stopped. Grass on the hills turned from green to gold. I had learned about Mediterranean climate in geography class at school: how it occurs only in five parts of the world, on the western sides of continents, between roughly 30 and 45 degrees north and south of the Equator. How it is associated with rotating high pressure zones that migrate through these sub-equatorial latitudes depending on the angle of the sun, bringing clear skies in summer and moving equator-ward to allow frontal cyclones to bring rain in winter.

A classic California landscape: Mt. Hamilton, to the east of Cupertino. Image from http://www.pleinairmuse.com/

Now I was living this rare climate. Warm sunshine day after day. Golden hills faded to a dusty tan. As summer crept toward fall, I found myself longing for the rain and dark I had hated in England. I discovered that my neighbors, too, eagerly awaited the first rain of the season. We celebrated together as the sky darkened and the first drops fell. I was learning to be a Californian.

 

The shapes of family

I still remember the tongue-lashing my teenage cousin and I received when we defended our widowed grandmother’s decision to file for divorce from her second husband. If the two of them couldn’t get along, we saw no reason why they should have to stay together. Mothers and aunts rounded on us. We didn’t know what we were talking about, they scolded. Grandma was a disgrace to the family. The Mother’s Union of our Anglican Church was going to throw her out, and her daughters were ashamed to show their faces in town.

Tauranga, New Zealand, was a tightly traditional little town in the 1940s and 50s, when I was growing up. Fathers worked, mothers stayed home with children. I didn’t know any single parent families. If there were divorcees, they were invisible. So were lesbians and gays.

kids on climbing frame

Neighborhood kids on the climbing frame in our yard.

My social environment in England was almost as sheltered. My friends were other young marrieds with small children. Our close of new row houses was filled with intact families like ours.

When we moved to Cupertino, CA in 1967, we lived in a complex of townhouse apartments. Each apartment had a 20 ft. by 10 ft. fenced yard. Our yard was filled with a climbing tower, a sand box, sundry tricycles, pushcarts, and other paraphernalia to keep our two small boys entertained.  The neighbors helped open my eyes to other family structures: single parents, grandparents raising kids, abusive relationships.

The memory of my grandmother’s divorce comes back to me as I read a letter to my parents. After thanking them for our two-year-old’s birthday gift, I wrote:

 

Our children's easel

The easel Tony built for our children.

17 Nov. 1967
Simon had a lovely little birthday party – a lunch for three little friends – after school the apartment is invaded with older kids, which would have caused problems. We seem to run a regular play centre here, what with the climbing tower and sandbox, and the new easel, with apparently unlimited supply of crayons & paper. However, the opportunities for recreation are so limited in these apartments, and so many of these kids from broken or otherwise mixed-up homes, that I guess its our contribution to the community.

There’s a self-righteousness tone to this comment, an indication of my awakening to the variety of household shapes in this new environment. A hint of defiance too. I wonder, was I getting back at my mother and aunts for their dismissal of my grandmother’s decision so many years ago?

Wide-eyed with wonder at the sights

Who can forget their first view of the Golden Gate Bridge? Or their first visit to California’s wine country. A breathlessly enthusiastic October 1967 letter to my New Zealand parents about a one-day excursion offers this immigrant’s impressions.

…We finally got away about ten, and headed north on the Nimitz Freeway, which runs up the east side of San Francisco Bay, past Oakland and Berkeley. Our destination was the Napa Valley, which is at the northern end of the bay. This is one of the most important wine growing districts of California, specialising mainly in dry wines similar to those of the Rhine Valley in Germany. A lovely day, and the air in the valley so crisp and clear – a pleasant change after the usual hazy smog of this valley. We went up through Napa itself – interesting little market town, with houses very reminiscent of New Zealand colonial architecture. We got a bit lost getting through the town, which made it more interesting – back streets are always more interesting than the usual bypass highway.

blue bottle

Old Milk of Magnesia bottle

Our first stop was at Yountville – just a tiny hamlet with a huge old winery building, now disused, and converted into an art centre – fascinating little booths selling antiques, objets d’art, etc. One of the latest crazes here is digging up old bottles and other trash from the old mining towns – some of these fetching fantastic sums in such markets! We sat on the terrace of a little café nearby and had coffee and watched the vineyards and the hills. The café used to be the old Wells Fargo stage stop, now converted. We then took a side road across to the other road that runs up the valley, the Silverado Trail – very quiet and empty, and beautiful scenery. The valley is long and narrow, with mountains on either side, and vineyards covering the flat valley floor. We stopped off by a dry river bed to have our lunch, then went on to visit a winery. We chose Beaulieu, a fairly small one, where the emphasis is on quality rather than mass-production. It was rather nice, too, in that it was not at all touristised, unlike another that we stopped at later – a German one, with a replica of the family home on the Rhine – a fantastic German high Gothic mansion, entirely over-run with tourists and touristy gimmicks. By contrast, the reception and tasting room at Beaulieu was a simple stone building under plane trees, very simply and sparsely furnished with red brick floor and wooden benches. We were taken on a tour of the winery – wonderful aromatic smell of the freshly picked grapes going through the crushers, and the coolness, and row upon row of vast redwood settling tanks, some of them holding up to 20,000 gallons.

House of happy walls

The House of Happy Walls at Jack London State Park. Image from http://sandysbitsandplaces.com

We took an interesting route home – partly because David [our four-year-old] has been breaking his neck to go over the Golden Gate Bridge. We climbed up the mountains on the west side of Napa – magnificent panoramic view of the valley floor – then dropped down the other side into Sonoma Valley at Glen Ellen, another tiny sleep hamlet, with even some original log cabin buildings. Near Glen Ellen is Jack London’s ranch, now a state park. None of us knew much about Jack London, but found it a delightful place to have a picnic tea, then walked up a little path through the trees to a revelation of a house. It was built by his widow of big fieldstones found in the grounds, as a memorial to him, and now used as a museum. From the odds scraps of manuscripts that were there I was quite impressed by his style. Probably you know more about him than we do. He died in 1916, wrote during the early 1900’s, “The Call of the Wild,” and “The Cruise of the Snark” among others. But that house was just wonderful, especially the exterior – I have never seen a place that so perfectly fitted into its surroundings.

The sun was going down as we drifted down the Sonoma – the Indian name means ‘valley of the moon’ – making the layers of hills distinct in different tones of gold. Over a few more hills into Marin County, past the gay houseboats in the artists’ colony of Sausalito, then suddenly, there was the most extraordinary view, just over the crest of a hill. Just below us the huge red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, and across the water the skyline of downtown San Francisco, all pink and pastel in the setting sun. The huge golden sun was dropping slowly into the waters of the Pacific as we drove across the bridge, and by the time we had got through S.F. it was dark, with car headlights making thick ribbons of light on the freeway interchanges.

An arithmetical awakening

Spines of 1960’s New Math paperbacks. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

From my old black filing cabinet, a letter to my parents:

Cupertino CA, 18 August, 1967
I have enrolled for an evening class. There is a very new (actually still under construction) junior college about 5 min. drive away, so have decided to prove or disprove a long-held theory of mine that I could have done maths if I had been given the chance.

In my New Zealand high school in the 1950s, academic-streamed students were divided into two programs: languages/arts or science/maths. Since I was a girl, with strong writing skills, the choice was obvious to the decision-makers. I was given a year of basic arithmetic with some beginning algebra thrown in, and that was it. I’d struggled with long division in elementary school, and learned math tables by rote, as everyone did. In college I infuriated my math student friends by continually asking “Why?” when they tried to explain math concepts. “That’s just the rules,” I was told.

De Anza Building

A typical building at De Anza College. Image from the college website.

The class I took at the brand-new De Anza College in Cupertino was titled “Structure of Arithmetic”. It had a subtitle: “For Parents Who are Confused about the New Math.” New Math was a short-lived school curriculum in the 1960s that emphasized understanding the rule-systems that underlie numbers, writes Fred Martin,  computer science professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell, blogging on the Computer Science Teachers Association site. He remembers it from personal experience and loved it. I learned that the decimal system is arbitrary and numbers could be expressed in any base. That was fascinating. Of course, I was the kid who learned his times tables for fun.

A Wikipedia overview notes:

Parents and teachers who opposed the New Math in the U.S. complained that the new curriculum was too far outside of students’ ordinary experience and was not worth taking time away from more traditional topics, such as arithmetic. The material also put new demands on teachers, many of whom were required to teach material they did not fully understand. Parents were concerned that they did not understand what their children were learning and could not help them with their studies. In an effort to learn the material, many parents attended their children’s classes. In the end, it was concluded that the experiment was not working, and New Math fell out of favor before the end of the decade, though it continued to be taught for years thereafter in some school districts. New Math found some later success in the form of enrichment programs for gifted students from the 1980s onward.

In a New York Times essay on the politics of math education, Carnegie Mellon historian Christopher J. Phillips writes:

Debates about learning mathematics are debates about how educated citizens should think generally. Whether it is taught as a collection of facts, as a set of problem-solving heuristics or as a model of logical deduction, learning math counts as learning to reason.

I was excited about the prospect of learning how the rules of arithmetic worked. Another motivation for taking the course was that I had a four-year-old son who was already showing signs of mathematical genius, and I knew I would soon be called upon to help him with homework. In a 2 Nov. 1967 letter I wrote:

The math course has already been useful in giving me a clearer idea of basic math concepts to help David. That child is incredible. For instance, we had a very interesting discussion at breakfast this morning on relative proportion, and I scarcely had to show him how to divide numbers into unequal proportions, e.g., 2 to 1, then subtract from each in such a way that the proportion remained the same.

I did well in the class. Receiving an A in Structure of Arithmetic was a huge boost to my self-esteem. More confident of my analytical skills,  I  went on to a satisfying career as a writer, editor and business systems analyst. The four-year-old grew up to be a computer science professor. I recently offered to copy edit the manuscript of his book on computational geometry. Though I didn’t have the skill to check his math, I was pleased that I could follow the logic of his argument. I even found a few typos.

Subscribe