Writing

February 21, 2015

 

February 21, 2015

 Happy 89th Birthday

This is one of those days with more significance today than when I wrote it; there was so much we didn’t know, couldn’t let ourselves imagine. This breakfast/lunch would be the last time I’d see and speak to my father while he was still mobile and able-bodied. Sam and I were lucky to get there at all. I was sound asleep on a Saturday morning when Sam darted into our room and said she just received a text from Janet – we were invited to breakfast for Daddy’s 89th birthday, starting five minutes ago. We threw on our clothes and raced over – even so, we were last to arrive and CD and Alex missed it entirely.

With grand-daughters on birthday

The word I used to describe it in this diary entry is so bland – pleasant. Foxy’s is a long-standing Glendale coffee shop on Colorado Blvd. It was another sunny day in California. In a large group like ours, it’s hard to indulge in much intimate conversation but – as he always did – my father engaged everybody at the table individually about what was going on in our lives. As usual, he said next to nothing about what was going on in his. He certainly didn’t mention he was in pain.

Vance & Geneva 2-21-2015

If anything, he might’ve urged us to spend more time with my mother, who was struggling to adjust to the nursing facility where she landed. (It would be weeks before we could move her to Solheim, the Lutheran nursing home they had selected for that far-off day in the distant future when they might need one.) Right now, all my mother wanted was to return to her life at their condo. None of us knew that life was already over. None of us knew we were already counting down hours and minutes.

89th birthday with some of his girls

If I’d known, what would I have said? The question haunts me because contemplating what I would’ve said if I’d known  makes the banality of what I did say painfully obvious. We probably said “I love you” in the casual hello-goodbye way we always said it, not in the heartfelt way I wish I’d said it. Not like I’d say it if I’d known it was the last time. I would’ve told him he was the best father ever and the greatest blessing in my life. I would’ve said, please stay. I need more time to study the kindness in your face, so I can reflect a fragment of what you gave to me and anyone else who was lucky enough to drift into your orbit. I would’ve said, the world is a colder place without you. Nothing will be the same when you’re gone. I hunger for the sound of your voice. I’ll miss you every day for the rest of my life.

Celebrating his 89th birthday

Instead I said, happy birthday. Thanks for lunch, what a great idea. Let’s do it again for my birthday and Janet’s, coming up in less than two weeks. We didn’t have two weeks. In retrospect, I see his tumble during the photo shoot as foreshadowing but on that sunny day in February, it seemed like a careless mishap, nothing to worry about.  We had years of sunny days to brunch in our future. Next time, the whole family – including my mother, who’d surely soon be ambulatory – would gather. We’d get everything right next time.

Sam admires Bree's handiwork on Grandma's nails.
Sam admires Bree’s handiwork on Grandma’s nails.

February 19, 2012

February 19, 2012

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.

CD preparing to walk for graduation.
CD preparing to walk for graduation.
His mother, not mentioned, in the valedictorian speech
His mother, not mentioned, in the valedictorian speech
The Melnitz lobby facing the blank theater
The Melnitz lobby facing the James Bridges  theater

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.

The sculpture gardens outside Melnitz Hall.
The sculpture gardens outside Melnitz Hall.
The sculpture garden as I remember it.
The sculpture garden as I remember it.

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.

Conferring with Dean (I think)
Conferring with Dean (I think)

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.

CDR Valedictorian

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.

February 16, 1980

February 16, 1980

CD with Great Grandpa K
CD with Great Grandpa K

CD had recently turned three and (to the best of my recollection) he was Grandma and Grandpa K’s first great-grandchild (which makes sense since I was their first grandchild).  There’s something special about seeing four generations together under one roof – probably because, inevitably, it won’t last long.

CD with Great Grandma K
CD with Great Grandma K

At this point in time, my grandparents were far from senile – they never did fall prey to dementia or lose their wits – but they unmistakably slowed down. After dinner, they spent most evenings watching TV.  Grandpa favored what I considered “low-brow” shows like BJ & the Bear and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. I was still enough of a snob to be uncomfortably aware our family forebears seemed a tad un-intellectual (not anti-intellectual, just not very) compared to the parents of most of my friends, including J’s cosmopolitan parents. I wouldn’t pass such harsh judgment today, having learned in the intervening years that reading great books does not necessarily make you a great person.

CD absorbs a piano lesson.
CD absorbs a piano lesson.

My grandmother was a gifted pianist – she could play anything by ear and took requests. She knew every hymn in the book but her secular favorite was “Red Wing”. played at Lutheran services for years – and she passed her love and talent for music on to her children and grandchildren in varying degrees. I, for example, missed out on the talent part but inherited the love. By contrast, my cousin Wayne – by virtue of hours of daily practice even as an adult – became the most amazing pianist in the family, as natural and accomplished as my grandmother.

CD sneaks a glamce at camera as Great Grandma, Janet and Joyce pay attention to music.
CD sneaks a glamce at camera as Great Grandma, Janet and Joyce pay attention to music.

She was a petite Midwestern woman, determined to make herself smaller so she didn’t take up a disproportionate amount of space. If we had chicken for dinner, she insisted her favorite part was the neck. I’m certain I inherited my Fuchs disease from her but she never complained about it (although she constantly rinsed her eyes with boric acid – which, in another time and place, might’ve been a clue). She was a true Norwegian. She didn’t complain about anything. I could learn a lot from her.

My family with grandparents in their younger days.
My family with grandparents in their younger days.

 

 

December 14, 1964

 

December 14, 1964

Perhaps what Chamberlain Castle would have looked like
Perhaps what “Chamberlain Castle” would have looked like

I suspect the reason I didn’t have imaginary friends was my two sisters. (That said, the youngest – Joyce – had a a deep long-lasting friendship with an imaginary boy named Keith – and for all I know, Janet had one too but she never told me.)  Sandy was an only child with an oversized imagination so naturally she created a cast of companions.

With sisters instead of imaginary friends
With sisters instead of imaginary friends

The characters in my story took the place of imaginary friends. My favorite part was naming them. I was – and still am – obsessed with names. I used to go through the fashion section of the huge Sears catalog that arrived every year and name the models. Selecting the perfect moniker was a challenge in 1964 because all the names in the baby books – and all the kids I knew – got stuck with traditional names (Kathy being particularly popular in the early fifties – see link to blog).

Sandy and me on the beach in 1964
Sandy and me on the beach in 1964

The era of exotic names – Apple, Charisma, Karma, Carlisle, Kipling (many unisex) – was at least a decade in the future, maybe more. In 1964, the top five names for girls were Lisa, Mary, Susan, Karen and Patricia. For boys, Michael, John, David, James and Robert.

My non-imaginary friend, Sandy
My non-imaginary friend, Sandy

The less said about the story described above, the better. At thirteen, I cornered the market on terrible hackneyed ideas. A surprising number survive, although recently I realized I might not need to save everything.  If “Chamberlain Castle” never escapes the slush pile (in this case, a file cabinet in the garage) the literary world will not suffer.

 

December 7, 1977

December 7, 1977

David Ward (copied from imdb)
David Ward (copied from imdb)

 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.

In 77, I was far away from a writing career and membership in the WGA.
In 77, I was far away from a writing career and membership in the WGA.

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.)

Writing in "the hamburger" - which is what CD called our oh-so-seventies trendy bean-bag chair.
Writing in “the hamburger” – which is what CD called our oh-so-seventies trendy bean-bag chair.

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?

 

November 29, 1968

November 29, 1968

Royce Hall, UCLA
Royce Hall, UCLA

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.)

The article where I found this picture called it the Ugliest Law School in America. Their words, not mine.
The article where I found this picture called it the Ugliest Law School in America. Their words, not mine.

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.

Life was paradise as an adored only child.
Life was paradise as an adored only child.

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.

The day they brought a new baby home and my world fell apart
The day they brought a new baby home and my world fell apart

It wouldn’t be the first time. They’d done it before and could do it again.

From this point forward, every photo depicts Janet being held and me in a state of acute distress.
From this point forward, every photo depicts Janet being held and me in a state of acute distress.

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.

 

November 21, 1973

November 21, 1973

 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.

My family at Janet's house along with Larry Payne
My family at Janet’s house along with Larry Payne

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.

Yoga for Dummies

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.”

Larry Payne1

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.

Larry Payne2_edited-1

 

November 18, 1995

November 18, 1995

Brad Wigor
Brad Wigor

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.

Kathleen onboard

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.

With my cousins at the tiny Spencer Iowa Airport
With my cousins at the tiny Spencer Iowa Airport

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.”

A real life business trip - Brad Wigor was one of the producers on this movie.
A real life business trip – Brad Wigor was one of the producers on this movie.

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”?

Yeah, I think so. About time, too.

November 9, 1979

november-9-1979

Technically, Knutsen isn’t my real ancestral name. When my great grandfather emigrated from Norway, his surname was Sorensen but when he saw how many Sorensens had settled in Iowa and Minnesota already he changed it to Knutsen. There are far fewer Knutsens than Sorensens and the gap is widening. In 1990, there were 11,300 fewer Knutsens; in 2000, there were 12,500 more Sorensens.

Steamship passenger list identifying my great grandfather as Peter Sorensen.
Steamship passenger list identifying my great grandfather as Peter Sorensen when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1888 prior to his 30th birthday in July of that year.
The 1910 Census identifying my great grandfather as Peter S Knutsen.
The 1910 Census identifying my great grandfather as Peter S Knutsen and listing his family.

Knutsen wasn’t an easy name for most Californians to pronounce (it came naturally to people in the Midwest).  Most assumed the K was silent, not hard, and referred to us as the Nutsens, Newtsens or Knudsens because it looked a lot like that name on dairy containers.

knudsen-cottage-cheese

The Knutsen name’s claim to fame in film appears late in the Big Lebowski and even there – for better or worse – it has the Swedish “son” ending instead of the Danish/Norwegian “sen” like our name.  Here’s a still from the movie with the memorable line.

Jeff Bridges in "The Big Lewbowski"
Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski”

When I married and changed my last name to Rowell, I assumed my days of hearing my name mispronounced were over. Not so fast! It turns out Rowell is as tricky for most tongues as Knutsen. (But, like Sorensen, it’s rising in popularity. In 2000 it was approximately 11,400 surnames ahead of Knutsen in the US).  A surprising number of people pronounce it as “Raoul”, like the French first name for boys. Row (rhymes with blow) – ELL (accent on the ELL) is the other common error but there are many more weird variations between the two. I learned to blurt “Rowell, said and spelled exactly like Powell, except with an R” when introduced to someone new. It didn’t help that our first house was on Lowell Avenue – in print, it looks so close to Rowell yet in speech it sounds so different.

drivers-license_edited-1

I’ve gone by Rowell now for longer than I went by Knutsen. Even so, Knutsen will always feel like my true name (I still use it as a middle name).  If I had it to do over again, I’d probably go by Kathleen (Kathy, Kate) Knutsen today. But, as Gertrude Stein so famously said, “What’s in a name?”

 

October 29, 1968

October 29, 1968Mr. 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.

"Kathy, tell us all about your novel."
“Kathy, tell us all about your novel.”

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.

Pay attention to me! (1968)
Pay attention to me! (1968)

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?

I want the cover of Time
I want the cover of Time
And the cover of Seventeen
And the cover of Seventeen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I want Johnny Carson to devote a week to mesmerizing me.
I want Johnny Carson to devote a week to mesmerizing me.

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.

Don't Pay Attention to Me!
Don’t Pay Attention to Me!

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.

 

 


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