This debacle – I truly tanked the GREs – was due to my own hubris. I hadn’t spent a minute in a math class since high school. For that matter, I avoided hard core English classes too, choosing to specialize in courses like Ibsen and Tolstoy in lieu of grammatical structure. I never did like diagramming sentences.
So, sure, my hard-core academics were rusty, but all my life, I tested high on standardized tests. Why should today be any exception? I sailed into the GRE exam without so much as a cursory glance at a GRE preparation guide. Why bother? How much can a person forget in four years?
News flash. In four years, you can forget more math than you ever knew. Granted, I could still nail basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division but guess what? They don’t ask that kind of question. Algebra and geometry were center stage. I suspect calculus and trig played starring roles, too, but I can’t verify because I didn’t take either one in high school.
So, how badly did I choke on the GREs? Suffice to stay, none of the Ivy’s competed to recruit me.
As I understand it, millennials – and, for that matter, gen-xers too – get to write their own ticket when it comes to senior pictures. Not only can they choose their own wardrobe, they can select the location(s) of their photo shoot – the better to accurately convey their personality.
Back in the Dark Ages, things were different. All the graduating girls in my Wilcox yearbook flaunt the same black drape – it had been a tradition for decades. As a child in my grandfather’s house, I revered the four framed 8×10 senior portraits of my father and his siblings that adorned the wall. The implicit message was, your senior picture is for life – it will follow you to your grave.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. Name a celebrity who hasn’t been mortified by the reappearance of his or her senior picture. Like the driver’s license photo that could double for a mug shot, a senior picture is forever.
I invite anyone reading this blog to post their own senior picture in the comments section. If you went to Wilcox, it’s in my yearbook, but rather than embarrass anyone, I call for volunteers. Any takers?
These were heady, exciting days. The chance to adapt S.E. Hinton’s novel for the screen was the break of a lifetime and I didn’t want to blow it. At my pitch meeting, I impulsively volunteered to return to high school – posing as a student – to determine if contemporary high school cliques resembled those depicted in Hinton’s 1967 novel.
I was a novice at writing as well as posing as somebody I wasn’t. I’d written two spec scripts and an unproduced MOW. Technically, I knew what I was doing; I could perform at a high level in academia but what about the real world, for real stakes? The story meetings were intimidating. Facing blank pages felt terrifying. Add to that, the pressure to pass for a 17-year-old high school student when I was a 29-year-old married mother.
Because I was a nobody in a sea of somebodies, there’s no reason Jon Davidson should have recognized me – particularly since I worked all of three months at New World, ostensibly as Roger Corman’s assistant (my title) but actually as the receptionist (harsh reality). Jon was sweet to pretend; it gave my ego a tiny but desperately needed boost.
I’m guessing that Julie, Debbie and I were doing a report together. Whatever the reason, I was already fascinated by psychology and still am. At one point, before I made a dime as a writer, I seriously contemplated returning to UCLA for a degree in psychology. Unfortunately, statistics was a requirement.
Books on psychology – anything, from pop psychology to doctorate tomes – are invaluable research resources. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the enneagram. Making certain all my characters are different enneagram types differentiates them. For the record, I’m a solid #4. David Schnarch is brilliant when it comes to relationships. Carl Jung provided a road map for mythic story structure and archetypes.
Psych experiments are also fascinating; as an undergrad, I volunteered for dozens to make pocket money. The Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) is particularly intriguing. Basically, students were randomly assigned roles as guards or prisoners in a mock prison for two weeks. Supposedly, some of them got too far into their rules –a few prisoners broke down and the experiment was terminated after six days.
Controversy surrounds this experiment because no one has been able to replicate its results. It’s been accused of unscientific methodology and possible fraud – were the guards coached to behave sadistically or did those tendencies emerge naturally from the roles the students played? Flawed or not, the fact the Stanford Prison Experiment is discussed half a century later confirms it was important – and probably warrants further study.
This was an exciting time. I loved the fast and furious pace of television versus the plodding development process in features. Most of my television credits are stand-alone MOWs (Movie of the Week), a 90s network staple. TV movies unfolded in seven acts, to accommodate six commercials. Ideally, all six act breaks were cliff-hangers, to ensure viewers didn’t channel hop when the ads started.
“Malibu Shores” was my only series experience. As co-producer, I worked long office hours with producers John Eisendrath and Joel Feigenbaum. After decades of writing at home on my own timetable, this was a shock to my system.
As staff writer-producers, we wielded more power than the directors we hired on a per-episode basis and the actors consulted us when they wanted to change a line. John and Joel insisted I veto the first request, to experience the thrill of saying “no” to a script change. That said, we could not say no to Aaron Spelling, broadcast Standards and Practices or the NBC executive in charge of the show.
In his novel Artistic Differences, Charlie Hauck compared producing a television series to chapter 37 of Moby Dick. I quote him below, slightly abridged. I highly recommend his book to anyone interested in staff writing.
“It’s exactly like chapter 37 of Moby Dick. Captain Ahab finally spots Moby Dick. He has a shot at him. And he gets a boat down in the water, a skiff or whatever. And he’s got these Asian guys rowing the boat. They’re not his regular guys – these are some kind of hotshot whaling experts. Anyhow, all these guys are rowing the boat. They really know what they’re doing…they’re Joe Whaler. And Ahab is standing in the back with this harpoon that he’s been sharpening for three years. And Moby Dick is flopping around, like, two hundred yards away. And all of a sudden, these sharks surround the skiff. They’re everywhere. And the sharks start taking bites out of the paddles of the oars. And the paddles are getting smaller and smaller, and it’s getting harder for the guys in the boat to row, and the whale’s not going to stay there forever, right?
But the thing is, the sharks don’t want the oars. They want the whale, just like Ahab and the Asian guys. But the sharks, who want the whale as much as anybody else, they’re the ones who make getting the whale impossible. You see?
And here’s the analogy. The whale is the television show. The hit series. Like, if it goes into syndication, everybody connected with it makes fifty million dollars. And the people in the boat, they’re the writers and producers. They’re the ones trying to get the whale, who know how to do it. And the sharks, the guys biting the oars, they’re the network guys, and the production company executives and the agents and everybody else who, when they don’t know how to get to the whale, decide, somewhere back in the swamp ova of the human brain, well, Jesus, I should do something, why don’t I try to sink the boat? And that’s exactly what it’s like trying to produce a television show.”
I’ve got the potential to be a crazy cat lady with a special place in my heart for tuxedo cats – like Henri, the existential cat.
J isn’t a cat person – but even he can’t resist the occasional clumsy cat video.
Common wisdom holds that you can’t “herd cats.” Nobody told whoever trains the stars of Moscow Cats Theatre. Recently, a mother and daughter cat-training team competed on America’s Got Talent. They didn’t win but I was entertained
The one-bedroom Sharon and I shared near the VA cemetery was my first apartment but I had years of practice co-existing in small spaces with others. Growing up in a Santa Clara parsonage, then sharing UCLA dorm rooms, taught me a little about compromise but apparently not enough. Things had been testy between Sharon and me from the start, but it was still devastating when she wanted me gone.
After that, I avoided her on campus. We lost touch after graduation. Decades passed and I still felt badly about how our friendship imploded. I wondered what she did with her life. When the internet arrived, I googled her but “Sharon Richards” produced so many hits it was hopeless– until UCLA published a student directory.
Imagine my surprise to discover Sharon lived less than five miles away – we actually shopped at the same Ralph’s market. It took courage to call her. I’m not sure if I was scared she wouldn’t remember me or that she would. We met for lunch and I apologized for being the roommate from Hell.
She explained that regardless of what she might’ve said (I wrote it down, so I knew), she was in the throes of her own anxieties – what I read as brutal rejection wasn’t much about me at all. As it turns out, very few things actually are “all about me.” This insight was healing and, as a bonus, Sharon and I became better friends than we were before we became roommates.
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.
The Sea Cat might’ve been a problem even if I hadn’t forced a healthy breakfast down my family’s throats – but for sure, that decision turned merely disgusting to dire. Like my sister Joyce, I’m neurotically phobic about vomit – I get nauseous if I see or hear it in films and, yes, “Monty Python and the Meaning of Life” is completely out of the question. And that scene in “Bridesmaids” sent me running, too.
Consequently, even though a responsible parent and considerate traveler would’ve initiated clean-up, I couldn’t even look. When the kids lost it, one after the other like dominoes falling, I curled into a fetal position. Luckily, J had a stronger stomach and received aid from a compassionate stranger in military uniform. Nobody died. That’s the kindest review I can give our voyage.
Due to the above circumstances, no photos document this segment of our journey so I’m illustrating today’s blog with fun things we did in England before we boarded the Sea Cat.
Girls lined up on one side of the hall. Boys barricaded the other. Girls hoped to be asked to dance. (Dancing alone, or with another girl, was not yet a thing.) The only fate worse than passively waiting to be chosen by a 13-year-old boy with braces was to be that hapless boy, crossing the Sahara of the dance floor to mumble, “Do you wanna dance?” Which is, of course, a freaking joy ride compared to the torturous solo retreat to the boy’s bastion after the girl says she’s “not in the mood.”
The month before the mixer, I envisioned my night unfolding much like Maria in “West Side Story”, when Tony glimpsed her across a crowded dance floor. It never happened like that. Why not? Let me count the ways. I was a seventh-grade giantess trapped in a life-long bad hair day. My mother dressed me like a goat-herding girl in the Austrian Alps and my father was a Lutheran pastor, as terrifying to Protestants as it was to Catholics, Jews and atheists. I wasn’t even a good dancer, due to lack of practice.
What was right about my life in Jr. High? A mother who loved me enough to sew for me (the results improved). A father who brought me a Squirman Herman caterpillar when he returned from a trip. It was more than enough.