There was nothing remotely amusing about this entry on May 13, 1964. I was so beside myself with rage I wrote the word “darn” four times, However, reading it – and similar entries– today makes me smile. Why? Because the fears, feuds, worries and daily mortifications that tortured me when I was twelve and thirteen – traumas I believed I’d never recover from – are so awesomely trivial today.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I stayed incensed for very long. I never reference my rage about the injustice of those dance and piano lessons again. Perhaps that’s not surprising, considering who I really am – a klutz with no interest in or aptitude for piano or dance. Obviously, when I wrote this entry, I confused myself with someone else.
My sisters claim that as the oldest I was actually the spoiled, indulged child. As evidence, they cite roughly five thousand more photos of me than the two of them. (Baby pictures only – the photo ops dried up once adolescence arrived). However, facts are facts. My mother’s cold smack-down – “your father and I will decide, not you” – says it all. I rest my case.
I didn’t know it at the time but this was my last day of employment as a secretary and the start of a major transition. Although it wasn’t officially confirmed I was pregnant, I strongly suspected I was and I was right. Since quitting my job meant relinquishing our health insurance, my timing was terrible.
In addition to impending parenthood, I faced an extremely uncertain future as a film and television writer – as illustrated by my conversation with my UCLA writing professor and mentor Bill Froug. Not only did I learn the unhappy story of another writing professor’s life, I realized it might take Froug – my champion – an unspecified “while” to read my outline. If the man who most believed in me wasn’t eager to read my latest, how could I hope to interest the powers-that-be in Hollywood?
At the time of this entry, I hadn’t earned a dime writing, John was in his second year of law school and our first baby was on the way. I should’ve been petrified but for some reason I wasn’t. To be sure, there were some hard times ahead – it would be four years before I’d see any success as a writer – but I believed we’d be all right – and we were.
The person I claim to be is a complete fabrication. Three words of the entry explain how and why this could happen. “I drink more.” A lot more. After a few drinks, my self-consciousness disappears and a wittier, friendlier me emerges. I don’t care what people say or think – at least not until the next morning when I wake with a headache and a list of apologies I need to make for things I shouldn’t have said.
When I stopped drinking this extroverted version of me ran dry. I reverted to an introvert. Introverts get a bad rap. People with a rich interior life and no apparent exterior life make boring movie heroes and heroines. They’re not easy to get close to but they do have a few things in common with extroverts.
Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone feels under-appreciated. Nobody’s life runs exactly as planned and few, if any, see all of their dreams come true. That does not doom humans to unhappiness. That depends entirely on what you believe you need to be happy.
I’ve got enough. I don’t need a Malibu beach house or a private jet. If I die with exactly what I’ve got right now, it’s more than enough. I believe that leaves me happier than some who never have enough.
For all my snarkiness about how Janet’s birth destroyed my life, the truth is we are and always have been very close. I’m using photos of Janet and I enjoying each other in this blog to balance the hundreds of photos where I look like if I can’t kill her, I’ll kill myself. (Full disclosure – it’s far easier to find photos of me in abject despair beside a smiling Janet than photos where I’m happy. Just saying.) Janet previews all of my bitter tongue-in-cheek photo captions so she can rein me in if I go too far. I think (hope) she finds this whole sibling rivalry “you ruined my life” business amusing – aside from that unfortunate episode when I “accidentally” shoved her baby carriage down a flight of stairs.
Janet’s emergency run to the hospital to have her appendix removed via surgery (it sounded so exotic at 13) was the most thrilling and life-threatening event our family had faced but Janet was just getting started. She quickly cornered the market on medical crisis. Joyce and I still have our appendixes. Joyce and I never broke our arm like Janet did. (She broke it skate-boarding. Some might say she was ahead of her time. Others might say she was desperate for attention.)
Janet also suffered – and still does – from horrific highly dramatic migraine headaches. Unless you count mild acne or clinical depression – and I don’t because they’re boring head things – I don’t think I had a single health issue during childhood or adolescence.
However, in the last 14 years I made up for lost time with three cornea transplants. Like me, Janet and Joyce inherited Fuchs disease (because it’s a genetic disease, duh) but so far their cases are mild. I’d be stunned if either of them needs a cornea transplant. Of course, at this time last year if you’d told me I’d need two cornea transplants before the year ended, I would’ve called you crazy.
Just to prove I’m not making this cornea transplant thing up, here’s a close-up of my right eye that clearly shows the 16 tiny stitches holding the dead person’s cornea in place.
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.
This day has always loomed large in memory – in many ways, it epitomizes my adolescence. First, I have to cop to outrageous thoughtlessness due to the self-centered cloud I lived in. This was a momentous day for my father – in fact, I’ll wager it meant more to him than it did to me.
My indifference to its importance in his life shames me today. I was incapable of grasping a world beyond my transient teen-age hurt over a bad time at a dance or my elation at meeting a new boy.
Natalie and I always egged each other in ways that got us into trouble and this was no exception. (The fact it was a Catholic Youth Organization dance – and in 1968 Lutherans and Catholics weren’t all that ecumenical – didn’t help.) Natalie got grounded too. Maybe that added to the drama and thrill of it all. Since we paid the price, the experience had to be of value, right? When Natalie was alive, no matter where we were, we called each other on February 5th to remember and commiserate.
For me, the ramifications of that Sunday adventure lasted for years. I became obsessed with X (after he dropped me). At the time, I blamed my senior year clinical depression on my obsession with that failed romance but it was a scapegoat – the depression was inside me, just waiting for an excuse. And in some ways, the obsession served me well – it kept me aloof from other serious romantic entanglements that might’ve changed my life – maybe for better, maybe for worse. Like most events of my adolescence, it doesn’t matter; I’m happy with the life I live now.
This is one of my most vivid memories. My father’s caustic criticism was the angriest thing he ever said to me – which says a lot, because I gave my parents plenty of reasons to be angry. They tended to be “disappointed” instead, which more effectively motivated me to change my behavior.
Most parents would respond to my obnoxious attitude somewhere between irritation and fury. I suspect very few would have the grace to apologize when he was in the right. (At worst, he tried to manipulate me into being more generous. Hardly child abuse.)
Unfortunately, this was neither the first nor the last time I behaved like a selfish brat. I’m the one who should’ve apologized to him and my sisters. At most, it would’ve cost me a couple hours to do the right thing but I was fifteen, stubborn and intent on doing “my thing.”
I don’t remember if I said I was sorry but I think he knew I was (the tears were a give-away.) My father taught me all I know about how to act with integrity in this world – simply by being himself. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t measure up to his example – I haven’t known many people who could – but growing up with him made me a better person than I could’ve been otherwise.
All of my life, I’ve been lucky – blessed. My father and mother were the biggest blessings of all.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.