What looked like my lucky break was actually a crash course in how quickly “All my dreams are coming true!” can dissolve into no one’s returning my phone calls. Sadly, this was far from my last experience with emotional whiplash, careers version.
Still, Froug was right when he advised me to celebrate. Why not bask in the potential something amazing just might happen? So what if it doesn’t, this time? The near-miss zone is nothing to be ashamed of. Most people never get that close. Nobody gets there by accident. Somebody noticed you and said, “the kid’s got talent.” If they didn’t believe it, they wouldn’t waste their time. The least you can do is believe in yourself.
Legend has it, the average overnight success endures twenty to fifty rejections before they’re rewarded with that first life-changing YES. What are you waiting for? The faster you rack up the no’s, the sooner your dreams come true.
The script that earned me this near-miss – “Intimate Changes,” not the greatest title – never got produced, but it won me introductions to agents, producers and network execs, all pivotal in my later career. What felt like loss was only life unfolding more slowly than I preferred.
“Success” was a syndicated (very slightly syndicated) half-hour talk show (and tax shelter). I recruited J’s boss, Mark P. Robinson Sr., because recently he’d been voted Trial Attorney of the Year. Mark had an amazing history. He was the youngest wing commander in World War II and was shot down over Yugoslavia. While his plane was going down, he promised he would go to Mass every day if he survived. He kept his promise. He was broken out of a POW camp by an OSS operative, Joe Sampson, who became his permanent private investigator.
MPR was an impressive, amazing person as are his sons – Mark Jr., who won the Ford Pinto case (exploding gas tank), one of a series of fantastic results that have continued to this day, Greg Robinson, defensive coach for the Denver Broncos when they won their two Super Bowls, and Geoffrey, who J considers the coolest guy he ever met.
MPR was vice-president of the California State Bar and co-founded the American Board of Trial Advocates. In addition to being a brilliant lawyer and a devoted Catholic husband and father, MPR had a huge personality and a legendary temper. He formed and shattered at least half a dozen partnerships during J’s tenure with him. Let’s put it this way. No one ever forgot that MPR was in the room. Most of the time, that was a good thing.
Not surprisingly, J’s relationship with MPR was volatile. I was horrified the first time I heard them yell at each other on the phone and amazed when it was all smiles the next day. J learned a lot at USC Law School. He learned much more from MPR.
Mr. Uebel was one of my favorite teachers at Jefferson Jr. High and I desperately wanted to impress him. He inspired me and challenged me in ways I remember to this day. I was lucky enough to have several remarkable teachers – among them, Jerry Farrington (Wilcox High School), Bill Froug (UCLA) and Shelly Lowenkopf (USC). I also had one terrible teacher whose last name rhymed with “cruel” (in third grade). In retrospect, what made her “cruel” was her total lack of regard for me. I was just another kid in her class which was unacceptable.
I worked hard – especially for teachers I admired – to be singled out as special. While it’s entirely possible they saw nothing noteworthy about me at all, they convinced me they thought I had something, which was more than enough to motivate an approval junkie like myself.
Maybe that’s the trick to motivating most people. Who doesn’t want to feel special? Who isn’t willing to go the extra mile for somebody who sees something extraordinary in them? Nobody I know receives as much attention and validation as they need. It’s not polite to ask for it (and if you do, it ruins whatever you get) but I suspect most people thirst for appreciation. The trouble is, outside of academia, it’s easy to get out of the habit of offering it. I’m going to make an effort to stop thinking about myself long enough to make a habit of giving it. It’s the least I can do, considering how much has been given to me.
Mr. Farrington thought he was doing something nice by calling attention to the fact I was writing a book (long-hand, in a spiral bound notebook, not exactly a professional effort). Ironically, his instincts were correct – I did crave attention, I still do sometimes – I just didn’t want to work (perform) for it. As discussed in prior blogs (link), work in any capacity isn’t one of my strong suits.
In this case, the problem was deeper and more complicated than sloth. I’m an introvert – a loner. In a group – be it therapy, a classroom or a party – I position myself on the fringes or in corners and feign disinterest in their social games. Secretly, I’m far from indifferent. In fact, I’m obsessed with other people’s opinions – of me. I want to impress them and I want something else I can’t admit. What I can’t ask for, I try to steal.
I’m talking about attention. I want people focused on how special I am. I want to fascinate with my quirks, my habits, my trivia. I want the cover of Time and Seventeen magazine. I want Johnny Carson to devote a week to mesmerizing me. What am I prepared to do to make my dreams come true?
Nothing, actually, but let’s call it my “counter-intuitive” strategy. I try to hi-jack attention by falling mysteriously silent. Some concerned soul will ask what’s going on. The more secretive my answers, the more people want to know.
To say the least, it’s far from foolproof. As often as not, people ignore the dull girl with nothing to say, in which case I fume in frustration and resent them for being shallow and stupid. For someone who claims to treasure solitude, I blubber like a baby if I’m not invited to the party where everyone else will be. I do not want to go, understand. But life loses all meaning if I’m not invited.
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.