Moving back in with my parents at age 23 was not part of my master plan, but there I was – stuck in my old bedroom in San Diego. I’d blown my first shot at the dream – being a professional screenwriter. I didn’t have a plan B.
I needed a new launching pad. Academia had been kind to me. I applied to USC’s grad school. In those days, UCLA ran roughly $250 a quarter. I don’t have figures for USC, but it’s safe to surmise you can add a couple zeros to that even in ’74 dollars. The only way I could swing it was if I moved in with my parents and saved my pennies.
San Diego is a beautiful city. Everyone says so. Unfortunately, my parents relocated there during my first year at UCLA. My life-long friends lived in Santa Clara. What’s an introvert like me to do? Make new friends? I don’t think so.
I clung to an old friend, the one who never (willingly) left my side – Inga, the dog I brought home from the LA pound. Even when I didn’t deserve it, she gave me limitless love and devotion. If you need a friend who won’t let you down, someone steadfast and loyal who quivers with bliss at the gentle touch of your hand………..
Please do check out your local animal shelter, as I did and continue to do. I’ve never been sorry. Let me know your story.
In the summer of ’76 I was pregnant, so we had to move out of our first apartment, within walking distance of USC (no babies allowed). To call our second apartment “gorgeous” is a gross exaggeration. It looked like every other apartment in the 70s. Outdoor stairs led to five or six apartments, ours included, on the second floor. Even though it was long ago and we lived there for only two years, I remember it in vivid detail.
I pity Los Angeles millennials – well, anybody who wants to rent in LA. One hundred and seventy-five dollars seemed like a fortune to us (our previous rent was $125) but it was do-able, even though John earned about $200 a week as a part-time law clerk (he was a full-time law student at USC). Imagine a couple renting a 2-bedroom LA apartment today on one partner’s part-time salary.
What we didn’t know was that we were within walking distance of Angelo Bueno’s auto upholstery shop – you know, the one where the Hillside Stranglers tortured and killed all those women with long brunette hair. One of the victims was abducted from the small hospital at the end of our block. The murders hadn’t started when we moved in, but it wasn’t long – October 1977 to be specific – and they lasted until February 78 (we moved out in the summer of 78). As the bodies piled up in Glendale and La Crescenta hillsides, it made for some jumpy times.
As for Inga, she lived a long and happy life with my parents in San Diego. I think she liked having a house and a yard to play in (as opposed to our apartment) plus my sister Joyce’s dog, Kuala, as a companion. My parents never particularly wanted dogs, but they fell in love with our dogs once they got to know them, and we all cried when Inga (and later Kuala) crossed the Rainbow Bridge.
“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.
There’s a bittersweet quality to seeing my oldest son do what I once did – albeit, in an entirely new way. Naturally, I’m proud of him (see my October 14, 2006 blog for details of his torturous – for his parents, anyway – journey from sophomore high school drop out to valedictorian in his film school major at UCLA. It was for real – we heard him give the speech. He thanked his father, who majored in poli sci at USC, instead of me, a fellow UCLA film school alumni. Go figure.) As happy and proud as I am, part of me longs to stand where he now stands. It’s less about envy than nostalgia.
These feelings became acute the night John and I attended the screening of his Project 1 equivalent film. Melnitz Hall looks the same, at least from the outside – and the Jakes Bridges theater where I screened my Project 1 film is oh so familiar – but look closer and everything has changed. I don’t recognize a single name on the faculty roster. Different people occupy all of my old professor’s offices.
During another student’s gory film, I took a breather and went into the lobby. Sitting there, by myself, sent me reeling through decades long gone. Memories of hours spent between classes in that very spot – albeit on funkier couches – flooded me. I half expected a classmate from my past to stroll up and say hello but that didn’t happen. As an old Madonna song might put it, Melnitz Hall used to be my playground. Now, although it holds a place in my life and my heart, it’s not my world and it won’t be again.
On the bright side, writing – my area of specialization – remains essentially the same, at least in terms of skill set, despite technological advances such as computers instead of an IBM Selectric, printers instead of carbon paper, script delivery by email attachment instead of by messenger. (What happened to the messenger industry? Are they out of business?) I got on board with word processing early and it hasn’t been hard to stay on top of the curve.
I was faced with another transition shortly after CD graduated, when I was offered an opportunity to teach screen writing at Columbia College Hollywood. I’ve always identified as a student – in part because I enjoy and take frequent writing workshops to stay current – and now I’m on the other side of the desk. So far, I enjoy it. Spending hours mentoring millennials is as close as I’ll get to re-experiencing my heady undergraduate days (albeit vicariously, from a different POV). There’s a palpable rush of creative energy that comes when I cross the threshold of a campus like UCLA or Columbia. It’s not a time machine or the Fountain of Youth, but it’s close enough.
My MFA program at USC required a non-fiction book as well as a novel and a screenplay. I don’t remember who told me about Sontag and Evans but their story fascinated me. Basically, Chris Evans – a family man – and his buddy John Sontag became central California folk heroes by repeatedly robbing the hated Southern Pacific Railroad. The story everything – exciting robberies, a noble cause, escapes from jail, mountain communities aiding and abetting the outlaws and a shootout at the Stone Corral!
My in-laws invited me to make their home my research base and I stayed with them for several weeks. Most of my destinations were less than thirty minutes away. Today I could do it all faster on my laptop but in 76, I had to drive to actual locations, scroll through microfilm and handle old newspapers. It was hard work but to my surprise I loved it.
I wanted to focus on Evans’ oldest daughter Eva, seventeen. Eva broke them out of jail and married bachelor outlaw Sontag. Their union was brief because Sontag died from his Stone Corral wounds.
Information on Eva was hard to come by but I believe I discovered a few things nobody else knew. So why can’t you find my Sontag and Evans book at Barnes and Noble? Why didn’t I go the extra mile and write it after all that research?
Ironically, all that research sunk the project. I fell in love with how much I knew and got mired in minutiae. The smallest detail had to be accurate and corroborated. The net result? My first paragraph required seven footnotes. Nobody wants to read a pedantic tome like that.
I put the project aside, intending to resume when my research was less fresh in mind. That’s where it sits today, in cardboard boxes in our garage.
I didn’t know Don Martin well – certainly not as well as Jon Crane, his best friend, or Christine Vanderbilt, his girlfriend. All of us lived together in the Law House at USC for six months in ’75. After John and I moved into our own apartment, Law House friends like Don and Anne Kurrasch came by to play bridge.
John and Don shared a semi-friendly rivalry – their regard and respect for each other was secondary to their burning desire to win – to be more successful. John could beat Don (and two or three additional opponents) at chess playing blindfolded, which impressed the hell out of me. Don’s academics were stronger. John had an edge; his parents were supporting him for three years of law school (this was renegotiated when we got married but that’s a story for another time.)
Don’s family couldn’t afford to fund his education. Fiercely ambitious, competitive and determined, Don worked his butt off and paid his own freight. Given his struggle to reach Law School, Don wasn’t about to slack off and blow it. Don stayed home and studied when everybody else chugged pitchers of Margaritas at El Cholo’s – although, to be fair, Don was a charter member of the “How many Tommy Burgers can you eat?” Club. He had the self-discipline to defer gratification.
At the time of my diary entry, our circle of friends took Don’s recovery as a given – until Don died. His iron will was useless. Everything he learned about law went to waste. Would he have chosen differently if he could’ve glimpsed the future? Of course. What about his circle of friends, John and myself included? Did his death inspire us to live better today?
From what I can tell, not much. We convince ourselves that what happened to Don won’t happen to us. We’ve got all the time in the world.
There were plenty of reasons both John and I felt uncertain about the future. He was in his first year of law school, finding his place in a highly competitive environment. If anything, my future was even less assured. At least with law school, odds are you’ll find work as a lawyer assuming you pass the bar. My MFA was in Professional Writing and there’s no guarantee you’ll make a living writing, ever. If anything, odds are you won’t.
Speaking strictly for myself, I was sick of dating. I spent entirely too much time obsessing about the state of my relationships. There wasn’t a snippet of male-female behavior, subliminal messaging, or secret motivations I didn’t ponder for days. A relationship I could rely on – i.e., a husband – freed hundreds of hours previously devoted to relentless analysis about how he really felt about me, what would happen next, what he really meant when he said I’ll call you later.
What about love? Isn’t that the reason to get engaged and married? We were very much in love, at least insofar as either of us understood what love meant, which is to say – not much. Realistically, we were in the grip of mad infatuation. We thought we knew each other but we didn’t really, not as we’d come to know – and love – each other over the next 42 years.
IMHO, love is nothing but illusion in those starry-eyed early days when you can’t see past the glorious magic of the other. Love becomes real when you realize your partner isn’t perfect – that is to say, she or he isn’t exactly the way you want them to be all the time – and you stick around anyway. Real love requires patience, compromise, forgiveness, compassion, empathy. It hurts sometimes. It changes both of you. It’s not easy – but it’s worth it.
That said, if I knew then how not perfect – how difficult and sometimes painful – love and marriage would be – would my answer still be yes? Absolutely.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Usually, I don’t realize a particular day or night was auspicious – in terms of exerting a major influence on my life – until long after the fact. Not this time. Everything about meeting John for the first time felt intense, heightened, dramatic. At the same time, there was a quality of recognition – like, “There you are. I knew you were coming into my life.”
I have some corroborating evidence for my romantic premonitions. The next day I met my friend Denise Gail Williams for lunch. She said I looked happy, glowing. I told her, straight-faced, “I met the man I’m going to marry last night.”
I can’t explain how I knew this with such certainty and – in the interest of full disclosure – I must add that John did not know any such thing. He was in his first year of law school at USC and marriage was not on his mind (although it would be, a mere six weeks later when we got engaged, and six months later when we got married).
None of our fellow residents at Law House gave us a chance. Someone started a betting pool about how long we’d last. No one predicted forty-one years and counting. And after all these years – he’s still the One.