Proms have become a trope in teen-age movies, which would have one believe that attending (or not attending) the prom defines high school existence (Pretty in Pink springs immediately to mind although there are plenty of others). This wasn’t my experience.
I went to several proms – all in the same lace-encrusted blue dress – and while they were all memorable in their own way, they were not the apex of my teen-age years. I doubt I’m not alone in this. I’ve never met one single person who claims their prom was the defining moment of their high school life.
In real life, I don’t think who got crowned king and queen of the prom was of matter of life and death (Carrie). I was never in the running so I didn’t really care. My parents, however, were the King and Queen of their high school prom
Our Prom Party sent up the movie-fantasy stereotype of a high school prom, it didn’t have much to do with the real thing. One of my Columbia students, Holden Weitz, wrote a hilarious teen movie that parodies this trope. That’s the movie I want to see made!
In late February 1969, my clinical depression escalated. (See November 30, 1968) My part-time job at California Book couldn’t save me but it staunched the bleeding. It forced me to adhere to a schedule. I only worked 16 hours a week, but it was my first job and I took it seriously. It didn’t infringe on my social life since I no longer had one. I didn’t miss it.
The major symptom of my despair was a total lack of interest in anything. Anhedonia is the technical term. It means “an inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable … including the motivation or desire to engage in activities.” It took enormous effort to shower. If I also washed my hair, I was too spent to go to school. Not so long ago I could do both – wash my hair and attend school – but not anymore.
I knew I wasn’t living up to the curse of my so-called potential. My parents were disappointed, although they never said so. It was nothing compared to how much I loathed myself.
The last thing I needed was more time in bed to think. That kind of self-centered contemplation was like swimming through quicksand – there was no way out, only down. The answer was activity, to get out of bed and out of the house. I knew what to do, but I lacked the energy – and the desire – to do it.
Writing about my year of depression is about as much fun as living it. I do it because so many people get stuck in something similar. In the thick of it, I felt alone and empty. It might’ve helped to know I wasn’t. If you’re depressed and read this, remember – you’re not alone or empty either. Things get better. Hang on.
The script I refer to here turned out to be my breakthrough spec script “At 17”, inspired by and loosely based on the brilliant Janis Ian song of the same title. I didn’t have the rights – I don’t know if anyone actually did – but ABC was developing it as a Movie of the Week (MOW).
My former boss at NBC, the late and much lamented Len Hill, was one of the ABC executives in charge of MOWs; my sister Janet was his assistant/secretary. He told me if I could write a brilliant script in the next ten days he’d consider it equally with the scripts the network paid for. Ten days isn’t enough to write a great script from scratch under any circumstances and it wasn’t the best of times for me. My son CD was 14 months old but well on his way to the terrible twos.
Nonetheless, I gave it my best shot. The tension was so high I threw up on some of those late nights (gross, I know) but – with Jani’s assistance – I finished it. I don’t think Len or anybody else expected me to do it.
The problem was – it wasn’t good enough. The network preferred the writer who cashed their big checks. The rejection was so devastating I gave up until my pride and desire for revenge resurrected me. “I’ll show you,” I thought. “I’ll do a great rewrite and prove you were wrong to dismiss me.”
Did I succeed? I think so. Although the film never got made, it was optioned three times and garnered interest from directors like Martha Coolidge and Amy Heckerling. Years after Molly Ringwald aged out of playing a teen-ager, she told me she would’ve loved to play one of the parts. To say the least, I would’ve loved for her to play it but my script didn’t reach her at the right time.
That’s the way things go. Big ups, big downs. Victories won, battles lost, it’s hard to quantify wins and losses when script quality is so subjective and the industry’s in constant flux. The bottom line is, were those ten sleepless days and nights worth it when I failed to get what I wanted? Would I do it again? Hell, yes. If I had my life to live over, I’d try harder, reach higher and risk bigger losses. The only way to fail for good is giving up.
The invitation for this party (reproduced above) explains it all. I wore the dress I actually wore to real proms in the sixties when I thought it was the most beautiful gown I’d ever seen. The style failed to age as well as I hoped – the dresses worn by most of the other female guests fared better (but I still got to be Prom Queen, an opportunity denied me in real life)
In this case, the photos are worth a thousand words so here are some of my favorites.
I was sandwiched in the center of a vinyl booth, two boys on either side. While they seemed semi-civilized at school, a round of Pepsis and fries at Denny’s unleashed their inner beast. As much as I hated to encounter obnoxious loud teenagers in real life, it was a thousand times worse to be dead center in a pack of them.
My adult self wanted to read them the riot act but my high school persona hunched speechless, red-faced.
They poured out the condiments Denny’s provided in little baskets on every table and scrawled their names in catsup, subbing salt for glitter. They blew straw wrappers at each other. They insulted diners who viewed us with disgust. If my four-year-old acted like this, I’d whisk him outside where he’d remain until he could behave himself but I didn’t have that option here. I wanted to beg our waitress’s forgiveness and leave a huge tip – I doubted the boys would leave a dime – but I couldn’t without calling attention to myself.
After they dropped me off, I called J in LA. “What’s up with your high school boyfriend?” he asked. I told him I wanted to dive under the table at Denny’s. It was hard for him to relate, since he lived a grown-up life with other adults.
The worst was yet to come. My 3rd period teacher sent me to the library because they were taking a pop quiz on material I missed. Another class, taught by Mrs. Murray, one of my former teachers in real life, already occupied the library.
When the lunch bell blared, students mobbed the door. A popular-looking perky blonde shook her bangled wrist and regaled her court with details about where she bought it, who designed it, and how much she paid. Most “girl talk” I overheard concerned fashion. They were as passionate about cute clothes as my sixties friends were about rock concerts and Viet Nam. My musings skidded to a halt when Mrs. Murray peered over their heads and said,
My adrenalin lurched into flight or fight mode. It was all I could do not to react, to pretend I didn’t realize Mrs. Murray addressed me. She repeated herself, not taking her eyes off me.
I feigned confusion. “No,” I said.
“You look exactly like a girl I had ten years ago,” Mrs. Murray said.
“Sorry, not me,” I said. As a preacher’s kid prone to Biblical references, I felt like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, denying my own identity three times. How could that exchange not arouse a glimmer of curiosity from one of the student witnesses? It didn’t. They were all more interested in being first in line at the snack bar than anything Mrs. Murray or I said.
January 22, 1971, is practically a template for every return trip to Santa Clara after my parents moved to San Diego. Invariably, these visits were poorly planned and rushed, always too much to do in too little time. My neurosis compelled me to forage in vain for a piece of my past (in the case above, the Grapes of Wrath gig). My futile search for Luke was eerily similar to my recurring “missed connections” dream.
A classic recurring dream involves taking an exam you’re unprepared for. There are infinite variations. In my typical version, I forgot/neglected to drop a UCLA class and the deadline passed. I must take the final but I never attended the class and know nothing. In my father’s version, he stands before a congregation without his hymnal or Bible – lost. I suspect every occupation dreams its own variant on this theme. No matter how often I dream it, it shoots my stress level sky-high.
My “missed connections” recurring dream induces frustration rather than anxiety. These dreams always take place in Santa Clara. I’m home (I can’t believe I still call Santa Clara home when I haven’t lived there for almost 50 years but some places leave a deep imprint) and I want to get in touch with somebody but I left their phone number and/or address in LA. Sometimes, I can’t figure out how to dial the phone or intercom – or the person I’m searching for moved and left no forwarding address. I’m always thisclose but I can never get there. To this day, I dream alterations of this theme over and over.
No doubt it’s obvious to amateur shrinks what these dreams mean. All I know for certain is they’re not going away. Santa Clara, here I come…. over and over again. As Bono famously sings, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
I met Gene Simmons for the first time in Gary Lucchesi’s TriStar office. Gene was wearing leopard boots, a multi-strand choker with colored glass beads or gems and some sort of mesh bracelet. I’m pretty sure I looked like a PTA president by comparison in my dress and pantyhose. (What was I thinking???) He liked my spec script and wanted me to write his movie project about groupies.
His plan was for me to attend a lot of rock concerts, go backstage, and soak up the scene. For those who read yesterday’s blog, Simon and Garfunkel’s empty dressing room at the San Jose Civic in ’67 was as close as I’d come to getting up close and personal with a rock star. (Not actually true. I met some heavyweights with Cindy Williams in 80 – but that was more of an “Industry” event, not a groupie scene).
I love rock music and I’m fascinated by the “secret society” that surrounds it – the novel I’m working on right now, in 2016, is set in the rock world. The prospect of safely immersing myself in that world was enormously appealing – but so was my hope of adapting the Moonflower Vine, a novel by Jetta Carleton I’d loved since I read it in the sixties.
It seems as if good things (such as opportunities, rewards, and kudos) as well as bad things (failure, rejection, and financial stress) tend to come in clusters. Either there are two or three projects I want to write or I can’t get arrested. Two guys ask me out or I’m home alone on a Saturday night. I’ve always assumed it’s the same way for everybody (“buses always come in threes”) but I’ve never asked. Is it?
Don’t bother looking up either of these projects on the internet. Another party already purchased all rights to the Moonflower Vine – forever – so there was no hope of optioning the underlying material. I wrote a draft of the groupies’ project for Gene and TriStar at which time it died, never to be resurrected (at least not with me as the writer). In this case, these days of indecision – ripe with intoxicating possibilities – were as good as it gets.
This was an amazing day, full of promise, and it retains its magic quality in my memory even though almost nothing unfolded like expected. I got the assignment to adapt S. E. Hinton’s classic novel, the Outsiders, for the screen. I did pose as a high school student and return to the high school I graduated from (more than a decade earlier) without getting busted.
Augie didn’t direct the movie, Francis did, which was the good news and the bad news. I’m awed by his talent; he directed some of the greatest movies of our time IMHO. How could this development possibly be bad? He’s an equally talented writer and took over the rewrite himself. When I saw the final shooting script, my name was nowhere to be seen.
Under the Writers Guild of America rules, this triggered an automatic arbitration because a production executive (director, producer etc.) sought screenplay credit. Three anonymous writers read all of our scripts and rendered a decision about screenplay credit. After a second and third arbitration and a Policy Review Board, I prevailed. It was a tense time.
This experience piqued my interest in the arbitration process and I volunteered to serve as an arbiter. Eventually I got to serve on the Policy Review Board, which I continue to do to this day.
Reading multiple drafts of the same script to decide who deserves screen credit provides a spectacular education in screen writing or, more accurately, rewriting. It was a front row seat to see exactly how scripts assume their final shape. I also learned a lot about human nature.
There are significant financial rewards for getting your name on a script, even if the movie’s a bomb. That might have motivated a few writers to battle but I think most of them fought because they believed they deserved to win. It reminds me of the joke about the actor playing the gravedigger in Hamlet, who’s convinced the play is about the gravedigger. Time after time, writers clearly saw – and frequently exaggerated – their own contribution and missed or minimized the contribution of writers before or after them. I doubt I’m immune to this self-serving blind spot; no doubt I do the same thing, despite being aware of this trap.
I suspect this tendency isn’t restricted to actors and writers – that many, if not most, human beings focus on their own contributions to the exclusion of others regardless of their line of work.
While no one in high school wanted to look like a dummy, looking like a brain was worse – at least for girls. Standards were different for boys. For many girls – myself included – high intelligence made a boy even more appealing.
Girls learned early to avoid appearing smarter than a boy you liked. Lucky for me, I was blessed with a knack for looking dumber than I am. Mere days after we met, my husband-to-be confronted me with the fact his peers – all the other USC first year law students in our student housing – thought I was stupid.
Highly insulted (but not surprised), I informed him I’d been accepted by UCLA’s School of Law twice. I declined to attend upon reading the course catalog both times. “Constitutional Law” stopped me dead in my tracks.
Where were the fun, theatrical classes like “Perry Mason Cross Examination” or “Burke’s Law”?
Feminism wasn’t on anyone’s radar when I attended Wilcox. Advice columns in magazines aimed at girls advised them to build up a boy’s ego, direct conversation to him and his interests, avoid showing him up, compliment him for every little thing you can. “You’re such a good driver!”
Things have changed since then, I hope. There are signs intelligence is actually prized in high school today.
Feminism helped as did the population boom. Intense competition produced parents who spare no expense to get their spawn a spot in a top college. In 1969, we braved an SAT exam room with nothing more than our #2 pencils. Today, it would practically be child abuse not to support your baby with tutors, refresher courses, webinars and college consultants. This suggests that perhaps it’s safe – even desirable – for boys and girls alike to strut their smarts in high school. I’m curious.
Growing up in Santa Clara, I took the Rosicrucian Museum for granted because it was close to home and easily accessible. Every other year from fifth grade on, my class toured the museum on a field trip. My favorite exhibit was the Egyptian tomb replica, a dark mysterious cave. I think this ’67 visit was my last. I’m sure the structure and collection improved significantly in the ensuing decades.
I hope I’m not the same girl who levelled such appalling questions at my unsuspecting boyfriend. “Do you feel superior or inferior to me?” I can almost hear him saying “Neither one,” and thinking, do I really have to answer this? Indeed he did. Apparently I suffered from a neurotic compulsion to bully people into giving me answers I didn’t want to hear.
Similarly, when my friends and I made our monthly or yearly predictions for ourselves and each other, I forecast heartbreak for myself. I didn’t dare write down my wildest dreams for fear I’d jinx myself. Instead I focused on my fears as if anticipation could inoculate me against pain and disappointment. Another exercise in futility, guaranteed to produce results I didn’t want.
While I don’t believe our thoughts create all of our reality (as in The Secret), I do believe our thoughts and expectations effect the trajectory of our lives. My friend Lewis is a prime example of the power of positive thought. Diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in 1996, he is alive today. Obviously, factors other than positive thinking played a part – happy thoughts alone haven’t cured cancer yet. That said, I doubt he’d be here now if not for his relentless optimism. I’m going to give it a try.