It’s weird to read an entry like this when photographs of the same day tell a different story. Several explanations spring to mind.
I’m a born curmudgeon and complainer.
I suffered a hormonal imbalance.
It takes me a while to acclimate to new places.
I lost at bridge, which always puts me in a terrible mood.
No matter where I find myself, I want to be somewhere else.
All of the above.
In 1989, the answer was “all of the above.” In the ensuing decades, I’d like to think I’ve matured to the extent that I no longer yearn to be someplace else. On the contrary, I’m grateful to be exactly where I am right now.
Why did it take me so long to realize the benefits of living here and now, something most people don’t need to “learn” at all? I believe I was born this way. If you know anything about the enneagram, I identify as a #4 – people prone to melancholy nostalgia over a lost, idealized past. Not exactly the life of any party (that might be a #7).
You can’t get over being a #4 (or any other number) – we are all who we are. That doesn’t mean we can’t be a better version of ourselves.
In this case, believe the pictures – not my words.
Some of you may remember Judith Russell, a guest at some of our outrageous 80s and Oscar parties. I’m sad to report she died earlier this week, alone, in her apartment; her body wasn’t discovered for two or three days. When I knew her, Judith was pretty, vibrant and funny. Two industry heavyweights – Terry Semel and Sherry Lansing – hired her to be their personal secretary – she had the perfect voice, face and sassy attitude to charm the public.
Judith’s life was anything but enchanted, though. In the 80s, a fall on the Warner’s lot dislodged a brain tumor that could not be 100% removed – sooner or later, it would grow back, and she’d face surgery again. Hospitalized at UCLA, she was inundated with flowers and get-well wishes from almost every A-list celebrity. Her hair grew back and she recovered.
She couldn’t recover from alcoholism, though. Employers paid for pricey inpatient rehabs because they wanted her sober. Judith had no interest whatsoever in life without alcohol. After one Oscar party, I took her car keys because she was far too drunk to drive home. In the morning, she was gone. Turns out she traveled with a second set in her purse, “just in case” something like that happened. That’s alcoholic thinking in action.
She lost the high-profile jobs and lacked the high-tech skills required to land an equally impressive gig. She withdrew from her friends. My sister Joyce hung in there the longest. She and Judith went to Saturday matinees in Burbank for years until it interrupted Judith’s drinking so she declined.
For the last ten years, Judith woke up and went straight to her local bar, where she spent the day and part of evening, until she staggered home or close to it – sometimes, she passed out in the parking garage or vestibule. Her landlady was concerned. We all were, but she no longer talked to people that knew her before.
I grieve for the Judith I knew in the past. I think she had a lot to give, but we’ll never know. I wish she’d let someone help her but she was adamant – to Judith, life without booze looked worse than death. So, of course, it had to end like this.
Rest in peace, old friend. I pray you’re in a better place.
This debacle – I truly tanked the GREs – was due to my own hubris. I hadn’t spent a minute in a math class since high school. For that matter, I avoided hard core English classes too, choosing to specialize in courses like Ibsen and Tolstoy in lieu of grammatical structure. I never did like diagramming sentences.
So, sure, my hard-core academics were rusty, but all my life, I tested high on standardized tests. Why should today be any exception? I sailed into the GRE exam without so much as a cursory glance at a GRE preparation guide. Why bother? How much can a person forget in four years?
News flash. In four years, you can forget more math than you ever knew. Granted, I could still nail basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division but guess what? They don’t ask that kind of question. Algebra and geometry were center stage. I suspect calculus and trig played starring roles, too, but I can’t verify because I didn’t take either one in high school.
So, how badly did I choke on the GREs? Suffice to stay, none of the Ivy’s competed to recruit me.
Looking back, the symptoms of clinical depression are in neon lights – but in 1968, I didn’t know what that meant. If anyone had asked, “Are you okay?” I would’ve said “I’m fine” – the correct Norwegian response to any inquiry about mental or physical health, even on one’s death bed.
I felt terrible about disappointing my father but powerless to level up my game. Was it more important for me to make it to school or look human? They wanted both? I couldn’t do it anymore. Sure, other people managed it without too much difficulty – I did it once myself, but those days were behind me now.
I saw darkness everywhere, even when babysitting. Two little girls spent hours play-acting “drunken father coming home.” Another couple, who left me with their daughter, urged me to have fun with their cat. The kids appeared in desperate need of affection. They begged to sit on my lap but I was too lost in my malaise to respond with genuine warmth. I felt guiltier for what I couldn’t feel and do than anything that I did – because I couldn’t do much.
That fall, I had a recurring nightmare, in which I was stalked by an unidentified killer. Just as he was ready to strike, I’d wake up screaming. The trouble was, no one heard me. Surely, someone would have comforted me if they’d heard. If I really screamed out loud.
In real estate, the most important factor is location, location, location. To what degree does location affect every other aspect of our lives? Would you be the same person if you grew up in a different place? (I don’t think so.) Can you change who you are right now by changing your location?
In AA, it’s called a geographic when alcoholics attempt to control their alcohol intake by moving someplace new and starting over. It’s considered ineffective, as far as controlling and enjoying your drinking goes. That said, taking my own geographic – moving from Santa Clara to LA – exerted a profound effect on my psyche. It shocked me out of my self-absorbed stupor. So many new ideas, places, and people flew at me simultaneously, I didn’t have time to brood.
According to Mary, my first roommate at UCLA, my problem was I was never happy where I was, I always wanted to be someplace else. At the time I thought she was full of it but in retrospect she showed extraordinary insight. I hadn’t been at UCLA two years before I needed to escape, which led to an ill-advised intercampus visitation at UCSB.
As soon as I unpacked, I was lost and frantic to return to LA and my friends. Things got worse as I hurtled toward another bout of clinical depression or a nervous breakdown, take your pick. On my weekend visit to LA on the weekend of May 10, I was under the erroneous impression my time at Santa Barbara had “damaged” me. I hadn’t realized it didn’t matter where I was, I carried my alienation inside. Attempts to “fix” myself by changing my location were futile since I brought the old me along.
To put it in the immortal words of Paul Revere and the Raiders in their song “Kicks”
I don’t know what I expected when I walked into Student Counseling – I’d seen psychologists and psychiatrists before but never felt helped by any of them. Maybe because I was so emotionally defenseless, this woman got to me.
I knew I was falling apart and I felt terrible about it because I shouldn’t be. I’d just graduated from UCLA and – on the outside – it looked like good things were about to transpire for my writing career. Unfortunately, instead of giving me confidence, this made me feel under pressure which was compounded by my efforts to escape an extremely toxic relationship with L, a much older man who manipulated me with threats of self-harm and other histrionics. (On the plus side, I’m grateful to L for illustrating – by example – how unattractive and unpleasant drama queens can be.)
The counselor said I was lucky to have a supportive family and I shouldn’t feel guilty about moving home. San Diego wasn’t that far from LA – I could make the drive in under three hours if I needed to take a meeting.
I took her advice and moved home. I left L behind, leaving it up to him whether he committed suicide. (Spoiler alert – he did not kill himself.) It was the right course and I might not have found my way if that counselor hadn’t extended her compassion. I’m not sure I ever knew her name – I know I never thanked her personally because I never saw her again – something I regret because, looking back, I feel like she saved my life
As the photos suggest (a very well-documented party, thanks to my sister Janet) this was a fun birthday party with two very familiar features – the phone call with my parents, in which they regale me once again with the details of my birth in a snowstorm. I’m ashamed to admit I got impatient with them although I tried not to show it – don’t they understand that I know this story by heart? How many times are we going to tell it? Of course, now that they’re gone, I’d give anything to stroll down those familiar paths of memory again.
And – true confession – I’ve been known to torture my own three children with overly-long sagas about their birth – which I’m sure they’d prefer to live without.
My second obligatory birthday riff – no matter what birthday it happens to be – is how achingly sad I feel to be so old. The melancholy trauma of aging hit me for the first time when I turned ten. I was inconsolable at the realization that from that day forward, my age would never again be a single digit.
Although I should know better by now (live for today, darn it!) I’m always lamenting the loss of something trivial, especially compared to the blessings I’ve enjoyed in this life. If you’re into the enneagram, I’m a classic type 4 personality – obsessed by what’s missing, never satisfied with what I have – until I lose it, anyway.
This entry captures my skewed priorities during my senior year (aka known as my Great Depression). Getting accepted at UCLA was momentous (and kind of crucial, since I neglected to apply to any other institution of higher learning). It was truly life changing.
That said, my obsessive focus was on pinpointing where I stood in my relationship with X – talk about an absurd waste of time! A mollusk could’ve deduced I was nowhere – the same place I’d been for almost two years.
It’s a peculiar kind of hell, pretending to be satisfied being “just friends” with somebody you’re madly in love with. To level the “just friends” playing field, I invented a boyfriend to compete with his living girlfriend. When he tortured me by rhapsodizing about how much he loved her, I could retaliate with my make-believe relationship with the non-existent Pericles. (I gave him a more normal name which is not to imply he was one iota more believable.)
To render an already pitiful situation more pathetic, I repeatedly pulled my fictional punches. Instead of touting my relationship with Pericles as a love affair for the ages, at the slightest hint X might be interested in me again, I kicked poor Pericles to the curb. My brilliant reasoning went, “X secretly wants to come back to me but he’s afraid he’ll be rejected for Pericles! Play it smart. Tell him you dumped Pericles so you’re fully available to him.”
Yeah, that’ll work every time – somewhere other than the planet earth. Suffice to say, my Herculean efforts to recapture X’s heart failed miserably. When I left Santa Clara (as it turned out, for good – and in June, not September) I never expected to see or hear from X again – but at least I had UCLA in my future. And that’s what actually mattered.
I still ask people for feedback even though I rarely follow it. In retrospect, I ran all of my life questions through my friends and family until someone told me to do what I already wanted to do. Why did I bother? To justify my poor decisions by blaming somebody else?
Anybody who knows me knows it’s torturous to make me do anything I don’t want to do – even when the benefits are great and the penalties severe. Well-adjusted mature people worked through this issue during their Terrible Twos. I must have been absent that day because it’s an on-going struggle.
In the above example from 1978, my friends’ advice is close to unanimous – if I want to escape my slough of despair, I need to get out of bed, get out of the house, welcome some external structure – aka a job – into my life. I knew it myself, I brought it up with J. Did I follow through with what everyone, myself included, agreed was a good idea?
Don’t make me laugh. At most, I doubled down on guilt, berated myself for not doing what I knew I should do. This probably sounds insane to people who are mentally healthy – but understanding my behavior was self-destructive led to self-loathing which amplified my self-destruction. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, a debilitating downward spiral. Fortunately for me, some person or event – something beyond my control – eventually snapped me out of it.
I wish I had some brilliant advice for someone trapped in this cycle. Bottom line, I regret wasting all that time. If there was some way to get it back, I’d use that time more wisely. Then again, I might not.
I strongly considered skipping this diary entry; I prefer the impression I have a perfect marriage and this entry shows the cracks. I decided to publish it anyway because – while I can’t see behind anyone else’s bedroom door – I strongly suspect most long-married couples suffer through periods when they are less than enchanted with each other – when one of them is so unhappy that walking out the door is an option.
I was miserable enough to fantasize about divorce more than once but I never followed through. I realize now that I blamed John for my deep dissatisfaction with myself and my life. This was particularly true early in our marriage, when I was stuck at home with a baby and a writing career looked like an impossible dream. I told myself I’d leave him as soon as I was self-supporting but when I became self-supporting, I was happier with myself so I no longer wanted to leave.
In 2003, we did separate – for a week. I think the reality of a split scared both of us; it scared me, I was a basket case. Things were significantly better when we got back together because we both chose to be there. That’s a big part of marital happiness, I think – the knowledge you chose and have been chosen.
Have things been all sunshine and rainbows since then? Of course not, we’re human. We disagree about many things. We can get on each other’s nerves. We know each other’s weak spots so we’re masters at sticking the knife in – although we do it far less often than we did when we were young. We’re old enough to know that most of the things we fight about aren’t worth it but that doesn’t always stop us. Both of us want it our way, all the time. Neither of us get everything we want.
That said, we get enough. We’ve been married 42 years and counting and I don’t see either of us filing for divorce anytime soon. If any young marrieds read this, don’t give up too soon. There are times when your relationship might look hopeless. That doesn’t mean it is hopeless. You’re not the first or last couple to feel broken. That doesn’t always mean it’s over.