Sproul Hall

February 9, 1971

February 9, 1971

San Fernando Earthquake

As frightening as that 6.5-6.7 earthquake was, I don’t think I really did take the possibility that I might die soon seriously. I was still a teenager, I thought I’d live forever. And – although I’d lived in California for fifteen years, fourteen of them in Santa Clara, this was my very first earthquake (at least the first that I can remember). Luke was on a high floor in the boy’s wing of Sproul. Hall; I was on the 6th floor of the girl’s wing. I’m not sure if this is technically true, but it seemed like the higher you were, the wilder the ride.

Sylmar Vetrans Hospital Prior to and the day of the 1971 earthquake.
Sylmar Vetrans Hospital Prior to and the day of the 1971 earthquake.
With my 1971 roommate, Miya Kamijo
With my 1971 roommate, Miya Kamijo

In a weird coincidence, that week my Swedish class was translating a fictional article about an earthquake in the US. Since the Sylmar, I’ve experienced two more reasonably big ones – the Whittier (1987, 5.9) and the Northridge (1994, 6.7). As I write this, I can’t help but notice it’s been a long time – almost 28 years!  – since the last big one hit LA – and, of course, we’ve been primed for “The Big One” as far back as I can remember. That said, personally I find earthquakes less threatening than other natural disasters California is spared – hurricane and tornados.

Trying to take the possibility that I might die soon seriously.
Trying to take in all the possibilities of what might happen next.

On a side note, that night there was a screening at Melnitz Hall – UCLA was great about inviting directors to talk about their latest movie before its release. That particular night, the guest director was Martin Ritt. In one of those 6-degrees-of-separation coincidences, I recently became FB friends with his daughter, Martina. LA can be a small, small world.

April 30, 2005

April 30, 2005

Jack and Mary deNove, my sister Janet, me and John
Jack and Mary Denove, my sister Janet, me and John

I met Mary Bennett my first quarter at UCLA, when we both snuck into an encounter group for depressed Sproul Hall residents. (Neither of us were depressed enough, according to their survey – we must have hidden it well.)

Mary Bennett, Cowgirl. in the Sand, circa 1969
Mary Bennett, Cowgirl. in the Sand, circa 1969

Ten minutes into group, we cured our depression by deciding to be roommates. I did take the precaution of checking out her LP collection first. When I discovered that – like me – she owned Mason Williams’ obscure first album, it was a done deal. I’ve never regretted it.

Mary (bridesmaid) and Jack at my wedding in 1975
Mary (bridesmaid) and Jack at my wedding in 1975

Mary met future husband Jack Denove before I met John but they married five years later. Apparently they weren’t quite as impulsive. Since Mary and Jack went to Loyola Law School and J was in law school at USC, they were one of the first couples we socialized with. Mary and I served as bridesmaids in each other’s weddings and John eventually joined their law firm – now Bennett, Cheong, Denove and Rowell.

Jack & Mary

I didn’t know Karen Stuart well but I liked her. John worked for her husband, Tony Stuart, before joining Mary and Jack. In this instance, my first instinct was correct. I shouldn’t have let Karen read my book without doing a rewrite. Since writers generally get only one shot – one read – I should have made sure it was as good as it could be. This is Not My Beautiful Wife, the novel in question (title taken from the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime)  wasn’t ready.  Karen was kind and gave me  useful notes, but this once in a lifetime opportunity was over.

John, Jack, Mary, Becky Miller Cheong (Wilkie Cheong's wife - Wilkie must be behind the camera - me)
John, Jack, Mary, Becky Miller Cheong (Wilkie Cheong’s wife – Wilkie must be behind the camera – me)

Maybe one of these days I’ll pick it up and try again.

December 9, 1969



Sharon in the Botanical Gardens
Sharon in the Botanical Gardens

It’s difficult to reconstruct my thinking that fall because it was – to put it kindly – demented. I was assigned to the dorm I requested – Hedrick. The first night, I went to a barbeque with my new roommate. From the bleachers, we watched people below line up for food. My roommate and her friends playfully paired strangers – the ugly guy with an ugly girl, fat guy with a fat girl, etc.

Granted, it wasn’t nice but given a sliver of self-awareness I might’ve remembered I wasn’t always nice myself. Instead I unleashed my judgmental, self-righteous inner judge and jury. How could a sensitive soul like myself co-exist with such dreadful people? I needed to move out of Hedrick – now! This was brilliant reasoning compared to my next brainstorm.

My problem was finding someplace to live. My inspired solution was – go through Greek “Rush Week” and pledge a sorority!

What I usually wore to school.
What I usually wore to school.

Whaaaat? At UCLA in ’69, frats and sororities were as cool as Nixon and Goldwater. Inexplicably, it slipped my mind I wore jeans to school every day. I pictured myself 30 pounds lighter, in cashmere twin sets and designer suits  with shiny straight hair and perfect make-up.

Closer to the correct "Sorority Girl" look for school (a slight exaggeration but not much)
Closer to the correct “Sorority Girl” look for school (a slight exaggeration but not much)

What’s wrong with this picture?

  1. I hate groups, especially those that burst into song for no discernable reason.
  2. I hate dress-codes and pantyhose (sorority girls had to endure both).
  3. I hate setting tables, washing dishes and making my bed – chores pledges were required to do.
  4. I hate sharing my space. Pledges shared a tiny room with six other girls as well as a communal bathroom.
  5. I hate committee meetings, especially when they involve ritual.
  6. Did I mention I hate groups?

Spotting a couple kinks in my plan, my parents urged me not to act hastily but – blinded by my vision of my secret sorority girl self –  I plunged forward. Yes, I said, I’ll pledge your sorority! My new sisters sang a secret song of welcome.

"What do you mean, this doesn't qualify as a natural look?"
“What do you mean, this doesn’t qualify as a natural look?”

I moved my earthly possessions into the sorority. As I unpacked, sanity returned. With mounting  horror, I remembered who I was – and who I wasn’t.

I told my sorority sisters I’d made a terrible mistake. They didn’t sing; they were too furious. I didn’t blame them. They kept their part of the bargain. I was the crazy flake who forgot who she was and what she wanted.

They were clear about what they wanted – me out of there. I got my eviction notice the same day I moved in. Luckily, Mary Bennett – my roommate from the prior quarter – needed a roommate. We arranged for me to move back into Sproul Hall – the same funky dorm where I started my college education.

I’m not suggesting my experience merits lines as profound as those T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” but I’m going to quote them anyway.