April 30, 2005

April 30, 2005

Jack and Mary deNove, my sister Janet, me and John
Jack and Mary Denove, my sister Janet, me and John

I met Mary Bennett my first quarter at UCLA, when we both snuck into an encounter group for depressed Sproul Hall residents. (Neither of us were depressed enough, according to their survey – we must have hidden it well.)

Mary Bennett, Cowgirl. in the Sand, circa 1969
Mary Bennett, Cowgirl. in the Sand, circa 1969

Ten minutes into group, we cured our depression by deciding to be roommates. I did take the precaution of checking out her LP collection first. When I discovered that – like me – she owned Mason Williams’ obscure first album, it was a done deal. I’ve never regretted it.

Mary (bridesmaid) and Jack at my wedding in 1975
Mary (bridesmaid) and Jack at my wedding in 1975

Mary met future husband Jack Denove before I met John but they married five years later. Apparently they weren’t quite as impulsive. Since Mary and Jack went to Loyola Law School and J was in law school at USC, they were one of the first couples we socialized with. Mary and I served as bridesmaids in each other’s weddings and John eventually joined their law firm – now Bennett, Cheong, Denove and Rowell.

Jack & Mary

I didn’t know Karen Stuart well but I liked her. John worked for her husband, Tony Stuart, before joining Mary and Jack. In this instance, my first instinct was correct. I shouldn’t have let Karen read my book without doing a rewrite. Since writers generally get only one shot – one read – I should have made sure it was as good as it could be. This is Not My Beautiful Wife, the novel in question (title taken from the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime)  wasn’t ready.  Karen was kind and gave me  useful notes, but this once in a lifetime opportunity was over.

John, Jack, Mary, Becky Miller Cheong (Wilkie Cheong's wife - Wilkie must be behind the camera - me)
John, Jack, Mary, Becky Miller Cheong (Wilkie Cheong’s wife – Wilkie must be behind the camera – me)

Maybe one of these days I’ll pick it up and try again.

March 9. 1969

March 9, 1969

This wasn’t my first – or last – fantasy about taking drastic measures to escape my life. I didn’t follow through on this brilliant plan or any of the others which didn’t stop me from devising new schemes to start over someplace else whenever I’m overwhelmed where I am.

Flying away to Sweden
Flying away to Sweden

Before my wedding, I thought about hopping a plane and disappearing in Sweden (because I took Swedish at UCLA, as if that would do me any good.)  Thank God I lost my nerve – or regained my senses – and showed up at the church on time. Sticking around and seeing things through was always the right choice.

Hop a train to a new life, new name, new city.
Hop a train to a new life, new name, new city.

The fantasy of running away – starting a new life with a new name – is probably impossible in our high-tech surveillance-happy world. Even if I could, there’s no reason to believe my new life would improve on the one I’m living. As the saying goes, wherever you run to, you take yourself with you.

Go where?
Go where?

And of course, “myself” is the problem. The only way to change my circumstances is change myself. It’s an inside adjustment, not an outside one. I didn’t know that in ’69, as I sank into a bottomless clinical depression. I find solace in the fact that no matter how much I wanted to leave this life, I stayed – and you know what? It got better.

These boots are made for walking - incognito woman of mystery somewhere far north of here
These boots are made for walking – incognito woman of mystery somewhere far north of here

February 12, 1976

February 12, 1976

 This decision was a turning point in my life – so it surprised me that until I re-read my diary entry, I remembered it wrong. The big beats – the struggle and the decision – remain essentially the same but over the years, I romanticized the fight. In my mind, it became a testament to J’s belief in me as a writer. While in essence this remains true, his willingness to bet on me didn’t come easily or with his whole-hearted support.

Me in 1976
Me in 1976

And in retrospect I can’t say he was wrong to have reservations. Neither of us knew that a month later, around the time the health insurance my job provided terminated, I’d discover I was pregnant and we’d pay 100% of all the ensuing medical bills.  Most of the free time I envisioned after quitting my job would get eaten up with taking care of our infant son.

Surprise! I'm pregnant. Writing will have to wait.
Surprise! I’m pregnant. Writing will have to wait.

While I did develop a successful career as a writer, it would be three years before I earned a penny writing – seven or eight years before I’d earn enough writing to support myself, let alone our growing family. If I’d kept my job, those breaks on our tuition and medical insurance would’ve come in handy, particularly since I didn’t accomplish anything much during that interval anyway.

"I've got plenty of time to get some writing done while I'm pregnant.... I'll do it later today...or tomorrow...or years from now."
“I’ve got plenty of time to get some writing done while I’m pregnant…. I’ll do it later today…or tomorrow…or years from now.”

Betty Friedan was right – work expands to fill the time available. Later in life, when I worked forty plus office hours a week co-producing a television show, I got more writing done on other projects at home than I ever had before. When my time is limited, I use it more wisely.

J and I with my sisters Joyce and Janet sometime in '76 (before pregnancy).
J and I with my sisters Joyce and Janet sometime in ’76 (before pregnancy).

So, quitting my job to provide me with unlimited free time wasn’t our best decision although it was good for our relationship. It meant the world that J believed in me but I probably should’ve believed in his judgment and stayed employed.

December 9, 1969



Sharon in the Botanical Gardens
Sharon in the Botanical Gardens

It’s difficult to reconstruct my thinking that fall because it was – to put it kindly – demented. I was assigned to the dorm I requested – Hedrick. The first night, I went to a barbeque with my new roommate. From the bleachers, we watched people below line up for food. My roommate and her friends playfully paired strangers – the ugly guy with an ugly girl, fat guy with a fat girl, etc.

Granted, it wasn’t nice but given a sliver of self-awareness I might’ve remembered I wasn’t always nice myself. Instead I unleashed my judgmental, self-righteous inner judge and jury. How could a sensitive soul like myself co-exist with such dreadful people? I needed to move out of Hedrick – now! This was brilliant reasoning compared to my next brainstorm.

My problem was finding someplace to live. My inspired solution was – go through Greek “Rush Week” and pledge a sorority!

What I usually wore to school.
What I usually wore to school.

Whaaaat? At UCLA in ’69, frats and sororities were as cool as Nixon and Goldwater. Inexplicably, it slipped my mind I wore jeans to school every day. I pictured myself 30 pounds lighter, in cashmere twin sets and designer suits  with shiny straight hair and perfect make-up.

Closer to the correct "Sorority Girl" look for school (a slight exaggeration but not much)
Closer to the correct “Sorority Girl” look for school (a slight exaggeration but not much)

What’s wrong with this picture?

  1. I hate groups, especially those that burst into song for no discernable reason.
  2. I hate dress-codes and pantyhose (sorority girls had to endure both).
  3. I hate setting tables, washing dishes and making my bed – chores pledges were required to do.
  4. I hate sharing my space. Pledges shared a tiny room with six other girls as well as a communal bathroom.
  5. I hate committee meetings, especially when they involve ritual.
  6. Did I mention I hate groups?

Spotting a couple kinks in my plan, my parents urged me not to act hastily but – blinded by my vision of my secret sorority girl self –  I plunged forward. Yes, I said, I’ll pledge your sorority! My new sisters sang a secret song of welcome.

"What do you mean, this doesn't qualify as a natural look?"
“What do you mean, this doesn’t qualify as a natural look?”

I moved my earthly possessions into the sorority. As I unpacked, sanity returned. With mounting  horror, I remembered who I was – and who I wasn’t.

I told my sorority sisters I’d made a terrible mistake. They didn’t sing; they were too furious. I didn’t blame them. They kept their part of the bargain. I was the crazy flake who forgot who she was and what she wanted.

They were clear about what they wanted – me out of there. I got my eviction notice the same day I moved in. Luckily, Mary Bennett – my roommate from the prior quarter – needed a roommate. We arranged for me to move back into Sproul Hall – the same funky dorm where I started my college education.

I’m not suggesting my experience merits lines as profound as those T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” but I’m going to quote them anyway.


December 7, 1968


Baby Boomers approached the SAT exam far more casually than millennials or gen-Xers. We didn’t hire tutors or spend Saturday afternoons in training seminars practicing multiple choice questions. We faced the exam armed only with our sharpened #2 pencils and took the darn thing cold.

Speaking strictly for myself, I didn’t even review fundamental math concepts[1] – how to determine the circumference of a circle, for example –  even though that’s the kind of information I didn’t retain then, forget now. As Peggy Sue observed in Peggy Sue Got Married, my lack of knowledge didn’t hinder me in “real” life.

I didn’t score a perfect 1600 – nobody I knew then did – but I didn’t embarrass myself.  Stanford and Yale weren’t going to ply me with scholarships but UCLA said yes (with no scholarship).  My score wouldn’t get me through their door today.

Reading my acceptance letter to UCLA in the fall of '68.
Reading my acceptance letter to UCLA in the fall of ’68.

I was good at taking tests but not great like my sisters, both of whom the state of California deemed “Gifted”.  Because of Janet’s and Joyce’s impressive IQs, the Board of Education invested considerable time and resources on the assumption I, too, might be a bit gifted. Alas, at best I was “above average” – which isn’t even in the same zip code as “gifted”.

Two of these three sisters are gifted. Who's the dummy? Hint - look for a vapid stare instead of a smile.
Two of these three sisters are gifted. Who’s the dummy? Hint – look for a vapid stare instead of a smile.

Did it bother me, being the dumbest Knutsen sister? Not as much as you’d think, since I was the oldest – so by default, the wisest. I suspect my IQ was sabotaged by my abysmal performance in “Spatial Reasoning”. How bad am I at Spatial Reasoning? I rank in the 20th percentile, meaning 80% of the entire USA population is smarter at spatial reasoning than me.

There’s always a silver lining, though.  I haven’t loaded luggage or groceries in a car trunk for decades.  I smile and say, “I’d love to help but I’m terrible at spatial reasoning – and I can prove it.”

[1] I do not recommend this approach.

September 16, 1975


September 16, 1975 John and I had been married exactly one month when I wrote this entry. We’d met for the first time 7 months ago, so even though we were legally man and wife I was still in the analyzing the “dynamics of our relationship” stage. We lived in a one bedroom apartment on Hoover, within easy walking distance of USC where he was in his second year of law school and I was working on my MFA in Professional Writing. I was working full-time as a secretary for Len Hill and Richard Marx, two program managers at NBC.

NBC ID Card_edited-1

The state of my moods depended on my reactions to people around me. On this particular day, I bounced from John making me feel lazy and uncreative to Shelly buoying me up with some positive feedback. I wish I could claim that in the intervening years I stopped letting the opinions of others determine my sense of self-worth.

Mood 1

That would be a lie. At best, I’ve become incrementally better at self-validation. I’m still inclined to dismiss positive feedback as false flattery and accept criticism as the absolute truth.  On the bright side, being thin-skinned means I’m not blind to flaws – in myself or my writing – when other people point them out. More often than not, what I initially perceive as criticism can be re-construed as good advice.

Open to criticism

Mood 2


In retrospect, John was right that pushing me harder wouldn’t have solved my writer’s block.  Creative energy does have to come from within. At the same time, I’m immensely grateful for Shelly’s encouragement.  Without it, I might have quit. I’m not one of those writers who have to write even if no one ever reads it. I write to be read and hopefully understood – to communicate.

Mood 3

That goes for this diary blog, too. This is as good a time as any to thank anyone who’s liked one of these or commented. Your feedback and validation keep me going.


August 19, 1968

August 18, 1968_edited-1


REAL ID from 1968 - NOT 18
REAL ID from 1968 – NOT 18

People go to fairs and carnivals for fun, not to wallow in existential despair over the human condition. Given this reality, my own psyche was the dark cloud hanging over the corn dog stand that summer. Everywhere I turned I saw another story about loneliness, suffering, and doomed lives. There was a little boy, about 7, that hung around – son of a “carny wife” (woman who moves in with a carnival man for a month or two). All of the grown-ups kept telling him to get lost – but there were no children his own age for him to go to. He was just so – alone, (Where is he today?)

My friend JoAnn Hill, who lived in Willow Glenn, got a job in another food venue. We hung out together when we had breaks at the same time. She was tall – at least 5’11” – and model-gorgeous with long blonde hair. Walking around with her was an instant inferiority complex.




Since JoAnn and I worked there, we got free rides – not always a good thing.  The guy who controlled the spidery ride wanted to impress JoAnn so he gave us what felt like hours of extra spinning – I was almost sick to my stomach. Things didn’t improve in the sweltering heat of the Pup Hut. A bad situation got worse when I was tasked to shove sharp sticks into hundreds of naked doggies. It was truly the stuff of nightmares.


Feeling Sick_edited-1

And that’s why I’ve never consumed another corn dog.


June 22, 1969


June 22, 1969Less than ten days prior, I endured graduation from Wilcox High – so how did I wind up here?

Reading my acceptance letter to UCLA
Reading my acceptance letter to UCLA.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, months after my acceptance as a fall English major at UCLA, I got bored and flipped through the UCLA Catalog of Courses. It changed the course of my life.

UCLA General Catalog - No Math - No Science - Sign me up!
UCLA General Catalog – No Math – No Science – Sign me up!

That afternoon, in a burst of clarity, I realized that simply by switching my major to Film (College of Fine Arts as opposed to Bachelor Arts), I could jettison every single math and science class – for the rest of my life! And that was just the beginning, once I viewed college like an academic Chutes and Ladders. I didn’t have to land on boring chutes like Shakespeare (I confess, not a fan) and Milton – I could climb crazy ladders instead. In addition to a smorgasbord of fantastic film courses all I needed to win a degree was a few English department creative writing courses and my choice of esoteric lit classes.

First thing Monday morning, I was on the phone with the UCLA registrar to change my major from English (already sounding dreary) to Film Writing (until now, who knew that anybody actually wrote films? Not me, but it sounded more entertaining than Chaucer in the original Middle English.)

Disclaimer: Don’t bother making the same request today. For starters, you must be a junior to apply. Once a year, the Film Department admits 15 juniors from disciplines within UCLA and 15 juniors from outside institutions. To compete, you must submit a creative portfolio, envelopes stuffed with cash (that’s a JOKE) and pray. Sixty out of thousands of applicants are selected for an in-person on-campus interview. Thirty of them move on to become next year’s film majors.

STUDENT ID CARD FRESHMAN YEAR (going for the popular Serial Killer look)
STUDENT ID CARD FRESHMAN YEAR (going for the popular Serial Killer look)

To be sure, it was not exactly a cake walk in 1969. The registrar said, “Here’s the thing, Miss Knutsen. You can do it if you start this summer instead of in the fall.”

I relate to a sculpture in the wonderful Sculpture Gardens conveniently located in front of the Theater Arts and Art buildings.
I relate to a sculpture in the wonderful Sculpture Gardens conveniently located in front of the Theater Arts and Art buildings.

This might have given me pause had I not been paralyzed by self-diagnosed severe clinical depression. With no rainbows on my horizon, what could I lose by sacrificing a final Santa Clara summer for a new start in LA?

So I said YES and it changed my life. Plunging into college that summer opened the door to a perfect career (for me) in a field I literally did not know existed until I noticed the difference in basic course requirements between English and Film. Was it serendipity, fate, luck or the hand of God? It depends on your point of view, I guess. All I know for sure is I wasn’t searching for my purpose or a path – but it was waiting for me to say yes and leap.