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.
That was the last I heard from Lewis for thirty plus years. I glimpsed him a couple times – once at Valley Fair and once at Santa Clara University – but I felt ugly and unprepared to run into an ex so I ducked out of sight. He never called and having taken the initiative in asking him to the Sadie, I wasn’t about to call him again.
This was the rule, not the exception, of how my relationships ended. Upon parting, we invariably promised to stay “good friends” after which we never spoke to each other again. Why was it so impossible to stay friends back then? None of my relationships ended in screaming or hatred – quite the opposite. I rarely if ever instigated the break-up although – looking back – in my passive-aggressive way, I drove more than one to dump me. I was sincere in my desire to stay friends but in those days, there was a stigma against girls calling boys – but maybe that’s just an excuse.
The internet – Facebook in particular – was a game-changer. For starters, it’s a lot less threatening to send an email than pick up the telephone. The passage of time helps too – not many wounds remain raw after twenty or thirty years.
In my experience, in any given break-up, one of the people involved wants it more than the other. Even if the dumpee agrees to be friends, there’s a hidden agenda to be more than friends. Twenty or thirty years after the fact, no one expects a relationship to pick up where it left off – hence, it’s possible to form a genuine friendship based on what two people originally had in common. I’ve been lucky that way with several exes, Lewis among them. While I can’t call this phenomenon closure – because these friendships aren’t over, they’re ongoing – they satisfy my need to make sense of what happened all those years ago.
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.
It’s too bad my 10-year high school reunion fell before John’s. If I’d been forced to attend his first, I would have had more empathy for him when we went to mine. Let’s just say, it’s not easy to attend a significant other’s high school reunion when you didn’t go to high school anywhere close to the same zip code.
For a narcissist such as myself, it’s excruciating not to recognize anybody or be recognized; I was a ghost. Seemingly everybody in the place wanted to talk to John. I had no idea who they were and they had no interest in me. On the bright side, it was excellent training for future office and legal dinners when everybody wants to talk cases with J and I can’t contribute as much as a crumb to the conversation.
A spouse reconnecting with an old high school flame is a typical reunion challenge. For me, it would’ve been a mistake to panic – it brings out the worst. Besides, I could understand why J liked Jill. She was smart, pretty, classy. He wouldn’t meet me for five long years after graduating from high school – of course he fell for other girls. As friends, they no doubt had a lot in common and genuinely liked each other. It would’ve been stupid and arbitrary to go nuclear crazy and possessive – “Don’t you dare talk to her!” Which isn’t to say I don’t get jealous. I do. But a little jealousy never killed anyone. There is, of course, more to this tale, but I’ll save it for another time.
It’s difficult if not impossible to convey what life was really like in 1968 to people who weren’t even born then. IMHO, most films set in the sixties are cliched embarrassments. The best was “The Big Chill” but even that was nothing like my reality.
I never considered running away. My father made a concerted effort to stay close. He would sit beside me and listen attentively to both sides of a new Beatles album – not to censor my music but to stay connected to my world. He took me – my opinions, my passions – seriously. Since I was still a self-involved child, it never occurred to me to exhibit similar interest in his music. My loss.
Baby boomers like me – teenagers in the late sixties – weren’t all about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll although “revolution” was in the air. My friend JoAnn, an aspiring model, had been obsessed with appearances – her personal revolution was reflected in a new craving for more authentic relationships.
The times exerted a powerful effect on Tal Pomeroy, who drew a high number in the draft lottery. One of the smartest boys at Wilcox, he was successfully challenged in his efforts to help me grasp the periodic table of the elements. He didn’t take a traditional route to his eventual M.D. like he might’ve in the fifties. Instead, he criss-crossed the US, worked all manner of jobs and got to know all kinds of people. Along the way, he handwrote long beautiful letters which could never be condensed to a text or tweet.
I’m grateful I came of age in the sixties. Were they better or worse than other times? I don’t know – but I doubt any other era could be as interesting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 far too quick to judge; I grossly underestimated the power of Nice’n’Easy. Under sunlight – any normal light, really – my hair blazed. You’d need to be blind not to notice and both of my parents were sighted. “You took out all the pretty darkness,” my mother lamented. My Wilcox cohorts assured me it was a vast improvement (not so hard, after 15 bad hair years).
This was my first foray into the new world of multi-hued hair – a world I’d return to often. Addicts claim their first hit of cocaine is the one they chase for the rest of their lives. Likewise, my first rinse of permanent hair dye was the sweetest. Drugs or alcohol would’ve been redundant. Pounding down neighborhood streets on our secret mission was intoxicating enough.
Due to the aerobic work-out we got from running all over town, our endorphins probably maxed out. Stir in the promise implicit in every Clairol commercial – by changing your hair color, you can change your life!- and we became unstoppable, the world was ours for the taking. If that’s not 20th century alchemy, what is?
As far as my parents were concerned, it wasn’t my finest hour. It wasn’t the worst, either. Still, even now – fifty years later to the day – bursts of our laughter and the pounding of our hearts echoes in my memory. We had so much fun it hurt – in an oddly pleasant way.
I remember it so clearly but I can’t recapture the feelings – the roller coaster highs and lows, intense moods and flooding emotions that were part and parcel of being fifteen. I couldn’t live at that fevered pitch forever – but I wouldn’t say no to another taste. After all these years, I’m chasing that fifteen-years-old high.
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.