He wasn’t even my favorite Beatle. That would be McCartney, by far. Lennon’s death erased any lingering hope the Beatles might play together again, as unlikely as that hope might have been. I stayed up all night, poring over my collection of Beatles memorabilia – old magazines, biographies. I didn’t want to let him go.
What interests me about crime (murder) isn’t the gore or mechanics – it’s the motivation and in this case, that was sad and senseless. Jared Leto gave a brilliant performance as the assassin in a small film called “Chapter 27” about the oh-so-ordinary but deranged kid who killed him. It doesn’t glorify the killer (who doesn’t deserve to be named) – it dramatizes his essential emptiness, which gave me a queasy feeling. While I didn’t identify with him, there weren’t as many miles between us as I might’ve hoped. I do know how it feels to be an obsessed fan, with no hope of breathing in my idol’s rarified air. I just didn’t take it to that love/hate dichotomy the guy doing time in the Wende Correctional Facility did.
When I read that Best Screenplay Oscar-winning David Ward (for “The Sting”; nominated again for “Sleepless in Seattle”) wrote a spec script about Sontag and Evans – the California outlaws I was contemplating writing a non-fiction book about – it gave me pause, but not for long. Something I learned quickly – which all aspiring writers should learn – is don’t worry if you find out another writer is working on a script that sounds strikingly familiar to yours. You won’t tell the same story. When I can give ten writing students the same writing prompt, no two of them will approach it the same way.
As it turned out, I never finished my non-fiction book anyway so stressing about a potential overlap would’ve been an exercise in futility. Still, I was curious about how David Ward approached the subject matter. As luck would have it, I met him at a small screening of a friend’s film (that he’d written) a year ago and got my chance to ask. I told him I’d asked similar questions years ago when he was a guest speaker at a USC writing class. Not surprisingly, he did not recall the evening with the same crystal clarity I did (read, not at all.)
What I should have asked him but didn’t – then and now – is, did you ever feel like you arrived? In 1977, my impression was he radiated confidence. It’s possible he did – I’d radiate confidence if I wrote “The Sting” –but now that I’m older and wiser I wonder. Based on the highly successful people I know well enough to ask personal questions, none feel like they’ve “arrived”. And maybe that’s for the best. Isn’t the journey the point?
My parents didn’t allow me to date until I turned sixteen and waiting for it probably built my anticipation. It was thrilling at first – I loved going out to restaurants (fast food qualified as restaurant to my untutored taste buds) and feeling so grown up. The rules were clear and easy in the sixties. Boys always paid. Boys placed the phone calls, boys asked for the date. Girls had it easy. All we had to do was say yes or no and follow the advice in magazines such as Seventeen let him do the talking and act interested. Find little things to compliment him about – his driving, for instance.
Six years later, the rules hadn’t changed much but I had. Dating felt more like a torturous death march than a thrill. I was sick of pretending to be interested when I was bored. Somehow, my dates were both dull and stressful, a bad combination. I was sick of exchanging resumes over dinner, worried about that sprig of arugula stuck between my teeth.
It’s no coincidence I didn’t get to know the two guys I could talk to in a genuine way on a date – my college boyfriend Luke lived in my first undergraduate dorm, my future husband John lived in Law House (grad school lodging). Proximity eliminated the artificial structure of a date while we got to know each other. I recently read Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance and learned that until recently the biggest common denominator in romantic pairings was proximity. People married people they met in their neighborhood or at work.
That’s no longer the case, thanks to the internet and various match-up apps. I was married long before any of that happened, so I can’t speak from personal experience. Does it feel more like a date or like getting to know somebody who lives nearby, now that we’re all only a modem away from each other?
It’s typical that my mother and father asked about me before dropping their terrible news. If the situation had been reversed – if I’d been mugged – they wouldn’t have gotten a word out edgewise before I recounted every last detail. This particular episode shocked me on so many levels. Even though I know better, it stuns me when bad things happen around churches. As a child, I believed they were sacrosanct, safe. (That’s why I didn’t lock my first bike when I stopped by to visit my dad at his church office when I was 10. Of course it got stolen. I couldn’t believe it.)
It’s also typical of them that instead of crying about the injustice of it all, my father expressed gratitude it wasn’t worse. I couldn’t find much gratitude in my own heart. Forty years later, I’m grateful that this is one of few – if any – episodes of random violence to impact my family. Writing those words is a little scary – by calling attention to our good fortune, am I jinxing us? (That’s a silly, childish superstition. I hope.)
I’ve written elsewhere about how right UCLA was for me (link) but I knew little more than its four initials when I applied. For all I knew, it could’ve been located in the dregs of downtown LA. (Except then it would’ve been called USC. Whoops, my snark is showing.)
My parents were equally ill-informed – their now-void plan had been to send me to a Lutheran college where I’d meet and marry a guy at least half-Scandinavian. To their credit, they hid their disappointment well and didn’t try to change my mind.
Consequently, on Friday after Thanksgiving in 1968, my parents and I left my sisters in Santa Clara and drove to LA. It wasn’t often I spent significant time with them without my sisters as buffer. It was exhilarating to reclaim their undivided attention but also unnerving. Too much focus on me risked revealing defects I sought to hide, especially from them. Based on the most formative experience, which took place when I was two years and two days old, imperfections – the failure to entertain, for example – were cause for replacement. Either one of my younger sisters – both less flawed than me – could easily take my place.
It wouldn’t be the first time. They’d done it before and could do it again.
Click this link to view family photo albums illustrating the inner torment of a highly sensitive recently displaced first-born child. You’re not being disloyal to Janet or Joyce. They signed off on my weird obsession decades ago. I’ll add new photos and captions in the near future.
After such a rocky start, the last thing I expected was a magical wedding – but then, all of my expectations were wrong. I figured spotty attendance, at best. Aside from John, how many lunatics would brave freezing roads and icy wives to witness nuptials?
A whole lot, it turned out. When two people as well-loved as Phil and Sharon wed, their collective iPhone contacts show up en masse. When Sharon walked down the aisle in a gorgeous traditional white gown, I was moved to tears. There was something so unique and poignant about two people (in my own demographic yet!) who got lucky and found love again.
And how about the Tenaya Lodge, dusted with snow as the sun flickered toward twilight? I can’t imagine a more stunning site for a winter wedding. Surrounded by so much beauty, I felt compelled to snap a selfie or two while waiting for the reception to start.
The hits kept on coming. The bride and groom’s adult children were all ecstatic about the union because it made their parents so happy. The DJ played music I loved and and adorable grandchildren danced in wedding attire. John and I were seated at a table packed with fascinating people and lively conversation. Even the food was good!
Last but not least, in a rare moment of clarity I conceded most likely I wouldn’t have finished the great American novel if I’d stayed home instead of attending the wedding. John refrained from saying “I told you so” in words.
In the early years of our marriage, John and I alternated holidays between my family and his – Thanksgiving in Fresno, Christmas in San Diego, reversed in the following year. Gradually we spent more holidays with my family because my parents and sisters all moved within five miles of my home.
I don’t recall when both of our mothers stopped volunteering to host Thanksgiving but they powered through longer than I could’ve. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve hosted Thanksgiving at our house, largely because when the question arises – “where are we doing Thanksgiving this year?” – I’m hiding in the bathroom.
Fortunately, my failings as a cook and hostess are compensated by my sister Janet and her husband Jim McCann, who do Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas ninety percent of the time. They are an indefatigable team, toiling from dawn till dusk to present the perfect meal without complaint (not entirely without complaint – but within civilized limits.) My contribution? Diet Coke and sparkling water.
Their house is well-suited to entertaining, with its vast rolling dog-friendly lawn. Singles and stragglers are always welcome. A good time is had by all.
Although I have a thousand photos of Thanksgiving at Jani’s, this blog is ostensibly about Thanksgiving in 1993, the first and last time I hosted the Rowell clan at our house. I’m posting those photos today to prove it.
When I met Larry Payne in November of ’73, he was one of two McCall’s west coast advertising salesmen working under the supervision of Mr. G. Don Draper was decades away, but (in hindsight) I saw a guy on his way to becoming Draper unless he made significant changes. Not that there’s anything wrong with being young, successful, handsome and charming – all of which describe Larry and Draper. The difference is, Larry wanted his life to be more than a slick Madison Avenue ad for success.
Astute as ever, Larry’s secret spiritual leanings flew far under my radar – not too shocking since I quit McCall’s less than three months after I started. My best friend Gail replaced me and when Gail moved on my sister Janet got the job. Via this grapevine, I heard what Larry was up to from time to time. One thing I never suspected was that – of the two of us – his name would appear on book jackets long before mine.
Cut to the present. Hopefully, I’ll fill in the middle someday. Today (from the bio on back of his book) “Larry Payne, Ph.D., is an internationally respected Yoga teacher and back specialist. He is Founding President of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, founder of the Yoga program at the J. Paul Getty Museum, co-founder of the Yoga curriculum at UCLA Medical School and founding director of the Yoga Therapy Rx and Prime of Life Yoga programs at Loyola Marymount University. Most Recently co author of his 5th book, Yoga Therapy & Integrative Medicine Turner Publishing.”
Here’s the best part. More than forty years after we parted ways at McCall’s – we are now FB friends – and he’s just as charming as he used to be.
What’s not to love about travelling to research a writing project? For starters, producers must fly writers First Class – something my Midwestern roots won’t allow me to do for myself. It’s superficial, but it made me feel important. Another benefit, for some – free alcohol. All I know is, the diet Coke they serve in first class tastes the same as it does in economy.
In the early days, I fantasized jetting to Paris for a true-life story but apparently very few Parisian lives are MOW material, (link to Movie of the Week). The stories I got hired to write unspooled in tiny Texas or Louisiana towns where the top hotel stood side by side with the local slaughterhouse. This is not to knock small towns or southern states; I’m from rural Iowa myself (Graettinger and Estherville, anyone?) However, as quaint and charming as Kickapoo, Kansas, might be, no one will ever mistake it for Paris.
I liked everyone I interviewed except the cold-blooded killer in the high-security Texas prison. Getting to know the people made the job fun. What made it hard was their desire for their stories to be told truthfully, like they happened in reality. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that regardless of how dramatic and compelling their tale might be, inevitably “a true story” dilutes to “inspired by a true story” or, worst case scenario, “inspired by a concept based on an idea related to a possibly true story.”
This particular tale of young love in the bayou was not produced, which was disappointing but not surprising. In those days, maybe half the scripts a network developed got produced (which is still a significantly higher ratio than feature projects in development). What did surprise me was my sympathies shifted from the love-struck kids to the Mom. A tad troubling, since I built my career on angsty teens, not their uptight parents living lives of quiet desperation. Was it possible my struggle with my rebellious teen son was turning me into one of “them”?
Not to cast aspersions on any of my high school friends who read this, but in retrospect I think Luke was wrong. While it’s possible most of Santa Clara was more together (mentally) than me, I don’t believe the bulk of my contemporaries charged toward their destiny without a missed step. Luke and I made the mistake of comparing how polished my friends looked on the outside to how messed up I felt on the inside.
In truth, teen-agers navigating the tail end of the sixties had plenty of reason to be confused about the world and their place in it. From the vantage of almost fifty years worth of hindsight, many of my peers explored multiple paths before finding their purpose. Sandy Walker briefly aspired to be a dental hygienist. (Not to disparage dental hygienists, but it wasn’t Sandy’s thing and she lasted a month.) At her next gig – receptionist for the Whirlpool Company – she made it all the way to two. Today, she teaches fitness classes part-time (Yoga and Pilates mostly) for a Modesto health club. Tal Pomeroy traveled the country, butchered meat and sold encyclopedias before he became Tal Pomeroy, MD. Against all odds, my art major college boyfriend Luke became an accountant – I didn’t see that coming.
If you, too, travelled bizarre career paths before you found yourself where you belong, feel free to comment here or on my domain. I’m endlessly intrigued by the strange trajectories of our lives.