That was a lie, of course, at least as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t possibly co-exist with four other people (three of whom I didn’t live with) and not have one of them get on my nerves – but it’s entirely possible the problem is mine (too prickly, petty, over-sensitive to personal slights, etc.)
I opted to spend several days alone in the condo while the other four explored the island – partly because I had a writing assignment due, partly because I craved solitude. Some people can’t stand to be alone; I can’t stand to be with people for extended periods. Unless I get a requisite amount of solitude, I turn testy and obnoxious – given that I get on my own nerves, it’s safe to assume I get on everyone else’s nerves too.
That said, this was one of our last “young, unencumbered” vacations. J had just turned thirty and we had one child, not three; the three of them were single but wouldn’t stay that way for long. If they did, indeed, get on my nerves, I don’t remember why; only that we had a great time.
My family camped a lot – a lot – on our bi-annual drives from California to Iowa and back. My sisters and I were jubilant on the rare occasions we stayed at a motel, especially when they had a swimming pool – at the time, an almost unimaginable luxury.
We had the ritual down. Daddy and Momie pitched the tent and organized the campsite. Janet, Joyce and I ran wild through the campsite, usually role-playing games like Lewis and Clark or Annie Oakley.
Of the myriad national parks we camped in, Craters of the Moon is most vivid in my memory which begs the question – does it take a disaster (okay, maybe not a disaster – but serious pain for my previously unscarred 13-year-old self) to make something memorable?
This was the only occasion on which we broke camp before we slipped into our sleeping bags and raced back in the direction from whence we came. Twenty-two dollars seemed like an enormous sum. I can still remember the dusk light. I still have a scar on my left knee.
For a long time, my Canadian TWIST AND SHOUT LP was my favorite album – I still have it, vinyl of course. Reading this entry again, it’s telling that as quickly as I acquired this treasure, I feared its loss – “I just hope it doesn’t get broken or stolen on the way home.”
Surely, I’m not the only person for whom the joy of acquisition coexists with fear of forfeiture. Looking back, many – if not most – of my relationships traced a similar trajectory. No sooner did I fall for someone than I obsessed about our inevitable break-up. Who would lower the axe? When? Nothing lasts forever.
I maintain my sense of impending doom originated with the birth of my beloved sister Janet, who usurped my place as center of my parents’ universe. It proved that when I least expected it, the people I loved and trusted most, might – for no apparent reason – replace me with a newer model. (For further evidence of this theory, see photo galleries Kathy Vs. the Alien Baby and And then there were three.)
In those days, John was such a workaholic that on the rare occasions we did go somewhere for a vacation, his first order of business was to get sick – what I refer to here as the Maui Syndrome. On this particular trip, there was an alternate explanation. On his thirtieth birthday – which occurred a few days prior – John resolved to quit smoking. He did so successfully, cold turkey, with the aid of copious quantities of alcohol. (Giving that up would come three and a half years later.)
I’m embarrassed to confess I continued to smoke for a few more years, which surely must have been torture for John – especially when enclosed in a car. Mea culpa. I should’ve signed up for Smokenders sooner. In 1982, you could still smoke without being a complete pariah but that would change shortly
This was one of our final young-and-free vacations. The friends we travelled with were all unattached as was Mitch. Malcolm and Maya were married but no children yet. J and I left our five-year-old in San Diego with his grandparents (which he loved).
The summer after this I’d give birth to our daughter and the summer after that we’d have our second son. Our single friends, almost en masse, would marry and have children of their own. A new cycle of family-oriented (read child-oriented) vacations would commence. I don’t mean to sound critical – those family vacations hold some of the sweetest memories of my life.
It would be years – eighteen or twenty, really, around the time the kids are all off to college – before we’d vacation with adult friends but now it’s got an entirely different quality than those young-and-free days in 1982. We don’t run up and down mountains anymore (truth be told, I never did) and concessions must be made to health. Bathroom stop are more frequent (almost like traveling with a toddler!) and we no longer talk, smoke and drink until 4 AM about our lives because we all tire more easily. What will the next phase be like? All of these eras have their moments. In my life, I’ve loved them all.
When I was young and dumb, I did more than my share of dangerous things but this experience was the only time I feared for my life. In retrospect, maybe John was just a lonely guy who posed no threat but I’d never found myself powerless in the passenger seat with a stranger before. Luckily, my threat about a “hand in my knife” did the trick. I still don’t know if I would’ve used it.
At nineteen, I thought I’d live forever. Sure, the newspapers were full of dreadful things happening to people my age but I didn’t know them personally and the possibility of death – or tragedy – touching me or my friends seemed remote.
I no longer believe in my own immortality – quite the contrary. Having lost my parents as well as some close friends, I am well aware of the fragility of life and the brevity of our time on this planet. While Doomsday doesn’t lurk around every corner, I no longer take it for granted that I and the people I love have all the time in the world.
This knowledge ought to motivate me not to waste another minute – to stop procrastinating and focus on what’s truly important but I’m a slow learner. While I no longer take foolish chances like I once did, I still waste time like I’ve got an unlimited supply – and that needs to change.
Last year I wrote about one of the most magical days of my life, carnival in Venice on this same trip to Europe. Carnival in Munich was somewhat less spectacular. I was there with my sister Janet, her soon-to-be-husband Jim McCann, and brother-in-law extraordinaire Matt Rowell. I can’t recall why John didn’t go to Munich with us – he had a less than wonderful time back at the Sports Chalet in Austria where we stayed – a solitary dinner in a cabaret, surrounded by Germans laughing uproariously at jokes he did not understand.
There’s only so much eating and drinking one can stand, particularly when you’re the only one in the group who doesn’t drink alcohol. I really felt like shopping and Jani – with her razor-sharp sisterly instinct – said that proved that I was too consumer-oriented. Maybe she had a point; it bothered me shopping wasn’t an option. The fact that all the stores were closed – totally inaccessible – made the merchandise in their windows that much more attractive.
I didn’t carry my camera that day, but Janet was always ready to shoot. Alongside the furious little boy hurling himself in the snow, there were scenes and still shots of startling beauty. Jim suggested Jani shoot a bicycle posed against the Munich city scene. We both subsequently enlarged the shot and it still hangs in my home. Simple but so evocative.
Trains– especially trains at night – exert their own magic. They suggest so many stories to tell. Quite apart from their mood-inducing creative energy, the ease of public transportation in Europe – subways as well as trains – makes me long for the day it covers more ground in Los Angeles. In recent years, I discovered LA does have a Metro and the Red Line stops across the street from the Pantages Theater, my most frequent Hollywood destination. It’s so much easier than driving and parking in Hollywood, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
After such a rocky start, the last thing I expected was a magical wedding – but then, all of my expectations were wrong. I figured spotty attendance, at best. Aside from John, how many lunatics would brave freezing roads and icy wives to witness nuptials?
A whole lot, it turned out. When two people as well-loved as Phil and Sharon wed, their collective iPhone contacts show up en masse. When Sharon walked down the aisle in a gorgeous traditional white gown, I was moved to tears. There was something so unique and poignant about two people (in my own demographic yet!) who got lucky and found love again.
And how about the Tenaya Lodge, dusted with snow as the sun flickered toward twilight? I can’t imagine a more stunning site for a winter wedding. Surrounded by so much beauty, I felt compelled to snap a selfie or two while waiting for the reception to start.
The hits kept on coming. The bride and groom’s adult children were all ecstatic about the union because it made their parents so happy. The DJ played music I loved and and adorable grandchildren danced in wedding attire. John and I were seated at a table packed with fascinating people and lively conversation. Even the food was good!
Last but not least, in a rare moment of clarity I conceded most likely I wouldn’t have finished the great American novel if I’d stayed home instead of attending the wedding. John refrained from saying “I told you so” in words.
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.
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.
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.”
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”?
This was the first and only time I traveled to the set of one of the MOW’s I wrote (other than shows that shot in LA, in which case I might drive ten miles – to Occidental, for instance, where they shot “She Cried No”). I’m not complaining – it’s boring on set unless you’ve got a job (and maybe even then, just saying). I was excited about a trip to Minnesota, especially with Joe Maurer, Brad Wigor and Felice Gordon, three producers who became friends. The fact they issued the invitation to me at all speaks volumes about how well they treated their writers.
In Minnesota, I sat through a table reading of the script – an extremely high-tension exercise for me. It’s mortifying when a line I wrote – especially a line intended to be funny – dies in front of the full cast and crew. There’s no ambivalence; it’s not a judgment call. Lines work or not and the thud is deafening when they don’t. I say nothing, draw a skull beside the clunker in the script, and slink down further in my folding chair. If I don’t die of humiliation, I’m expected to fix what I failed to get right the first time – fast. This close to production, every wasteful delay bleeds money.
After the reading, I accompanied Joe, Brad and the director – Bill Corcoran – on a location scout. By sheer coincidence (or cosmic design, you decide), we drove past Bethesda Lutheran, the hospital where I was born. In honor of this karmic connection, Corcoran insisted I leap out of the van and pose for a historic photograph (see below).
I sat by Felice on the return trip to LA and – along with other fascinating facts – discovered Felice was Jean Shrimpton’s manager when Jean was the ultimate supermodel girls like me longed to look like.
As if this wasn’t enough excitement, my youngest hit double-digits and turned ten. Too much was happening, too fast. And I loved every minute of it.
I call on this memory in times of trouble because circumstances reversed so drastically. In less than thirty minutes, utter despair about losing a dream turned to exhilaration about a vastly improved, doubled version of the dream – all with no great effort or sacrifice on our part. It was a gift we didn’t expect or deserve, but there it was – almost as if there was someone watching over us.
I’m not suggesting God has a hot line to reservations at American Airlines or that J and I are so special, travel angels stand ready to perform miracles on our behalf. What the experience says to me is, don’t judge so hastily. What appears to be a disaster might be a blessing in disguise. If you’re too focused on life’s injustice, you might miss the boon fortune wants to grace you with.
This insight is a lifeline when everything in my life simultaneously goes south and it looks like there’s nothing left – a situation I’ve faced more than once. I remember that afternoon at LAX when instead of losing we won more than we knew to ask for. If that could happen – and it did – my present disaster might turn around too, even though I can’t imagine how. I don’t have to. The trick is to open my mind to possibilities instead of bemoaning my bad luck.
 A word of explanation. In 88, we wouldn’t – couldn’t – indulge in a trip to Europe unless it was free – which it was, thanks to a MasterCard promotion offering a free flight and lodging in Paris to customers who racked up 25 thousand Mastercharge points. Challenge accepted! We charged everything humanly possible and paid our bills on time, thus avoiding interest. Hence, the trip was free.