USC

April 18, 1982

April 18, 1982

J settles down after the shock (talking to Jake Jacobson)
J settles down after the shock (talking to Jake Jacobson)

For John’s 30th birthday, I threw him a genuine surprise party (with a little help from my friends). I’ve never done it for anyone else and no one has ever thrown one for me. I’m not sure how I’d react. Given my social anxieties, probably not well.

Anne Kurrasch and future law partners Mary and Jack deNove
Anne Kurrasch and future law partners Mary and Jack Denove

There were a few logistical hiccups. We were leaving for Hawaii in a few days but – to avoid going to work – J told his boss, MPR, he was leaving today. I couldn’t advise him against this without spoiling the surprise even though – since I’d already invited his office staff including MPR – everyone knew he lied. Fortunately, they had a sense of humor.

J with his boss MPR
J with his boss MPR

The party lasted well into the following morning, as most did back then. Turning thirty was a big deal. Only yesterday “Don’t trust anybody over thirty” was a catch phrase. How could people as young as us turn thirty? What happened to our twenties?

Mary Bennett deNove, Anne Kurrasch, me, Joyce Salter
Mary Bennett Denove, Anne Kurrasch, me, Joyce Salter

Decades later, thirty no longer sounds old and the question is different. What happened to our thirties, our forties, our fifties? Before long, we’ll know what Paul Simon meant when he sang “How terribly strange to be seventy.”

J and I with Joyce and John (forever young) Salter
J and I with Joyce and John (forever young) Salter

I don’t feel like I’m fifty, let alone sixty, so I can’t possibly contemplate seventy. I doubt I’m alone here. Almost everyone my age eventually says something like, “I know I don’t look my age.”  I assure them it’s true even though it’s patently false and they do the same for me.  In my mirror, I don’t look my age either but it’s meaningless. In my own eyes, I never will.

J doesn't seem to age

J doesn’t seem to age either, at least not until I see him – or myself – in photographs. There, the truth is revealed. Sometimes I don’t spot myself at all because I’m looking for someone younger. Sometimes I wonder how my mother snuck into the picture. Why are photos so much crueler than the mirror?  Someone out there knows the technical reason. Maybe they can also explain where my thirties and forties went.

Where did our thirty and forties go?

April 8, 1973

April 8, 1973

Image from "The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2014."
Image from “The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2014.”

The extreme competition for a toehold in the entertainment industry makes it a major challenge. That, plus the fact a lot of people assume there’s nothing to it. Most people would never attempt to perform brain surgery or extract wisdom teeth because they’re not trained professionals – but when it comes to acting, writing, directing, everybody’s an expert. Some people are right, they’ve got what it takes. Most are wrong; they fail to realize the craft and hard work involved in making it look easy.

Me around 1973
Me around 1973

For years, industry experts have claimed that if you write a great script, it will be discovered but I disagree. I can’t prove it but I suspect a lot of great scripts die in the drawers of discouraged writers unable to get a read from somebody with enough power to help.

Link to a YouTube series by Michael Akkerman, one of my current students at Columbia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClffzUrRDXk
Link to a YouTube series by Michael Akkerman, one of my current students at Columbia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClffzUrRDXk

I got my big breaks from professors in college – notably Bill Froug and Shelly Lowenkopf – who liked my work and recommended me to agents. That’s my first advice to anyone who wants to break in. Take a class, impress the professor, make friends with him, her or anyone else with connections. The seminar’s bottom line advice was correct for its time –  networking (“hanging around”) and exuding confidence are your best bet.

Link to "Life as a Mermaid" a web series my current student Faith-Ann Bishop and former student Ryan Brennan have both contributed to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhhRQ8-sIZc&t=41s
Link to “Life as a Mermaid” a web series my current student Faith-Ann Bishop and former student Ryan Brennan have both contributed to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhhRQ8-sIZc&t=41s

To a certain extent, YouTube and other on-line venues level the playing field. If your short film goes viral, it doesn’t matter if you live in Kansas and don’t know a  soul in Hollywood. They’ll find you.

Marketing
Marketing & Branding are essential to success.

I hate the word platform but it can’t be ignored in today’s market. An ability to market and brand yourself is invaluable. These subjects weren’t taught when I was in film school and I’m not sure they’re taught today – but they should be.

March 23, 1976

March 23, 1976

I didn’t know Don Martin well – certainly not as well as Jon Crane, his best friend, or Christine Vanderbilt, his girlfriend. All of us lived together in the Law House at USC for six months in ’75. After John and I moved into our own apartment, Law House friends like Don and Anne Kurrasch came by to play bridge.

I don't have a single photo of Don Martin so I'm posting photos of the other people who lived in Law House and knew Don in the hopes they'll see themselves tagged and add either photos or memories of Don to this blog. From left to right above - Ned Meade, Jon Crane, James Dumas and Christine Vanderbilt
I don’t have a single photo of Don Martin so I’m posting photos of the other people who lived in Law House and knew Don in the hopes they’ll see themselves tagged and add either photos or memories of Don to this blog. From left to right above – Ned Meade, Jon Crane, James Dumas and Christine Vanderbilt

John and Don shared a semi-friendly rivalry – their regard and respect for each other was secondary to their burning desire to win – to be more successful. John could beat Don (and two or three additional opponents) at chess playing blindfolded, which impressed the hell out of me. Don’s academics were stronger. John had an edge; his parents were supporting him for three years of law school (this was renegotiated when we got married but that’s a story for another time.)

Blindfold Chess

Don’s family couldn’t afford to fund his education.  Fiercely ambitious, competitive and determined, Don worked his butt off and paid his own freight. Given his struggle to reach Law School, Don wasn’t about to slack off and blow it. Don stayed home and studied when everybody else chugged pitchers of Margaritas at El Cholo’s – although, to be fair, Don was a charter member of the “How many Tommy Burgers can you eat?” Club. He had the self-discipline to defer gratification.

John's Law House roommate, Mitch Iwinaga (left) & Ted Hannon, wife and dog with J.
John’s Law House roommate, Mitch Iwinaga (left) & Ted Hannon, wife and dog with J.
Jon Crane, Ned Steag, Ken Millikian
Jon Crane, Ned Steag, Ken Millikian

At the time of my diary entry, our circle of friends took Don’s recovery as a given – until Don died. His iron will was useless. Everything he learned about law went to waste. Would he have chosen differently if he could’ve glimpsed the future?  Of course. What about his circle of friends, John and myself included? Did his death inspire us to live better today?

Michael Arnold, who was in charge of the Law House, with girlfriend.
Michael Arnold, who was in charge of the Law House, with girlfriend.
Anne Kurrasch and Paul Samuels (obviously, a lot of these shots happen to be taken at theme parties)
Anne Kurrasch and Paul Samuels (obviously, a lot of these shots happen to be taken at theme parties)
Jim Dumas, Paul Samuels, J
Jim Dumas, Paul Samuels, J

From what I can tell, not much. We convince ourselves that what happened to Don won’t happen to us. We’ve got all the time in the world.

 

 

March 18, 1975

March 18, 1975

My face betrays a trace of doubt here - or maybe I'm just worried I'll spill the punch all over my dress.
My face betrays a trace of doubt here – or maybe I’m just worried I’ll spill the punch all over my dress.

 There were plenty of reasons both John and I felt uncertain about the future. He was in his first year of law school, finding his place in a highly competitive environment. If anything, my future was even less assured.  At least with law school, odds are you’ll find work as a lawyer assuming you pass the bar. My MFA was in Professional Writing and there’s no guarantee you’ll make a living writing, ever. If anything, odds are you won’t.

Cutting the wedding cake

Speaking strictly for myself, I was sick of dating. I spent entirely too much time obsessing about the state of my relationships. There wasn’t a snippet of male-female behavior, subliminal messaging, or secret motivations I didn’t ponder for days. A relationship I could rely on – i.e., a husband – freed hundreds of hours previously devoted to relentless analysis about how he really felt about me, what would happen next, what he really meant when he said I’ll call you later.

J & K having a bite of cake

What about love? Isn’t that the reason to get engaged and married? We were very much in love, at least insofar as either of us understood what love meant, which is to say – not much. Realistically, we were in the grip of mad infatuation. We thought we knew each other but we didn’t really, not as we’d come to know – and love – each other over the next 42 years.

Exiting the church

IMHO, love is nothing but illusion in those starry-eyed early days when you can’t see past the glorious magic of the other. Love becomes real when you realize your partner isn’t perfect – that is to say, she or he isn’t exactly the way you want them to be all the time – and you stick around anyway. Real love requires patience, compromise, forgiveness, compassion, empathy. It hurts sometimes. It changes both of you.  It’s not easy – but it’s worth it.

The bride and groom

That said, if I knew then how not perfect – how difficult and sometimes painful – love and marriage would be – would my answer still be yes? Absolutely.

March 11, 1978


March 11, 1978 

Anne crashed on our couch a lot before she became a high-powered entertainment lawyer.
Anne crashed on our couch a lot before she became a high-powered entertainment lawyer.

Anne Kurrasch was one of four female law students living in Law House when I moved in and met John. After he casually mentioned he thought Anne was attractive – he and Anne went out drinking and dancing as “friends” before he met me – I realized it behooved me to befriend her. I didn’t expect we’d become friends for life.

Law students J and Anne in the process of NOT studying.
Law students J and Anne in the process of NOT studying.

Prior to law school, Anne majored in economics at Stanford (nobody else I knew even got into Stanford). When I met Anne, her goal after graduation from law school was to work in a bank. I like to think I influenced her career change to entertainment law.

Anne started out as J's friend but over the years she became more mine - not that we're competing or anything.
Anne started out as J’s friend but over the years she became more mine – not that we’re competing or anything.
Anne with our first dog, a black lab named Greta.
Anne with our first dog, a black lab named Greta.

Like every other job in the entertainment industry, it took a while for Anne to break in – during which she spent most weeknights sleeping on our couch – but Anne doesn’t give up easily. Today she’s an attorney for Showtime.

She influenced me too as confirmed in this diary entry –   “influenced by her preference for single stones”. Anne knew everything about the world – perhaps it was an elective at Stanford. Things like the right watch (Omega), the right dressy evening bag (Judith Leiber) and the right car (Jaguar). While I did not acquire these things (aside from a Leiber evening bag), it was all brand new information to someone who grew up shopping sales racks. I didn’t know shoes and bags made a statement about who I was – at least they did in the late seventies and eighties.

K&A

As much as she knew about classy accessories, she was only human and, as such, suffered occasional fashion catastrophes as illustrated by the photo below. (I more or less lived there.)

Fashion catastrophes

More on Anne as the next forty years unspool.

 

 

 

February 2, 1975

February 2, 1975

PHOSPHORESCENT WAVES
PHOSPHORESCENT WAVES

 Usually, I don’t realize a particular day or night was auspicious – in terms of exerting a major influence on my life – until long after the fact. Not this time. Everything about meeting John for the first time felt intense, heightened, dramatic. At the same time, there was a quality of recognition – like, “There you are. I knew you were coming into my life.”

Not the real Law House - but kind of like I remember it looking. Formerly a fraternity house, it stood on Fraternity Row, within easy walking distance of the campus.
Not the real Law House – but kind of like I remember it looking. Formerly a fraternity house, it stood on Fraternity Row, within easy walking distance of the campus.

I have some corroborating evidence for my romantic premonitions. The next day I met my friend Denise Gail Williams for lunch. She said I looked happy, glowing. I told her, straight-faced, “I met the man I’m going to marry last night.”

Me in 1975
Me in 1975
John Rowell
John Rowell

I can’t explain how I knew this with such certainty and – in the interest of full disclosure – I must add that John did not know any such thing. He was in his first year of law school at USC and marriage was not on his mind (although it would be, a mere six weeks later when we got engaged, and six months later when we got married).

Around the time we got engaged
Around the time we got engaged

None of our fellow residents at Law House gave us a chance. Someone started a betting pool about how long we’d last. No one predicted forty-one years and counting. And after all these years – he’s still the One.

Still the ONE
Still the ONE

January 10, 1978

january-10-1978

 Actually, I suspected my classmate Dick made all of it up because – upon receiving a compliment – my first impulse is to negate it. “This old thing?” “No, I haven’t lost weight, I’ve gained.”

"I'm nervous and high-strung!"
“I’m nervous and high-strung!”

Of course, not everybody regards the qualities Shelly allegedly attributed to me as compliments. In retrospect, “nervous” and “high-strung” sound unhealthy and problematic. “Intense” was my favorite word. I don’t know how universal the desire to be “intense” is, but to me it seems more interesting than mild or calm. “Conscientious” was flattering but I was too secretly slothful for it to apply to me.

"I'm intense and conscientious!"
“I’m intense and conscientious!”
 All my life, I’ve struggled with owning “ambitious”. My Midwestern Lutheran brain conflates it with greedy and ruthless. Anyone who attended Bible school knows the meek will inherit the earth. Ambitious and meek don’t go together.
"I'm ambitious but that doesn't make me a bad person."
“I’m ambitious but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”

When I was younger, I tried to hide my ambition. It seemed incompatible with feminine or being a good person. However, I’ve changed my mind. Ambition isn’t inherently “bad” – it depends on how far you’re willing to go to realize your ambitions. When ambition functions as a driving force – a means of powering the passion required to realize a dream – I think it’s a gift.

December 21, 1977

december-21-1977

johns-graduation

 Re-reading this entry, I feel like I should cue “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters for a soundtrack.

J and I had been married for just over two years. Now we stood on the precipice of our future. Our son would be a year old in a month and J was officially launched on his legal career.

John with his mother and me on swearing in day.
John with his mother and me on swearing in day.

My own future looked cloudier and more uncertain. Technically, I was a full-time wife and mother with no intention of rejoining the 9-5 work force if I could possibly avoid it. I harbored writing aspirations but there was no guarantee of success. So far, I hadn’t realized a dime from my literary efforts.

I was my own worst enemy. I put every conceivable task – laundry, paying bills, keeping up with General Hospital, socializing with friends – in front of writing. What kept me from pursuing my dream? Part of it was my fear of completing anything because then I’d have to submit it and risk rejection and failure. Part of it was sloth.

"We've only just begun - to live...."
“We’ve only just begun – to live….”

I needed to do something more with my life. In my wildest dreams, that something would be writing but from where I stood in ’77 I couldn’t imagine how it could happen, let alone what form it might take. In college, I studied film writing but I also wanted to write a novel. You need a camera, cast and crew to fully realize a script; all you need to write a novel is time and paper.

When and why did it become so difficult to do what I used to love to do more than anything else? The when is easy. Everything changed when I decided to make writing my career. Before college, writer’s block didn’t exist. I wrote voraciously for my own amusement. My film writing major at UCLA and my desire to parlay that into real life put pressure on every word I eked out and caused me to judge my own efforts harshly because I feared the judgment of others.

As you can see in this photo, squirmy baby CD is wearing his stiff white "Big Boy" shoes.
As you can see in this photo, squirmy baby CD is wearing his stiff white “Big Boy” shoes.

I suspect the same thing happens to anyone who turns a hobby into a profession. On the plus side, it’s a chance to make a living doing what you love. The problem is, if you’re successful – maybe even if you’re not – you never enjoy it as much as you did when it was a hobby.   That’s my experience, anyway. If yours is different, I’d love to hear about it.

December 18, 1975

nbc-to-usc

december-18-1975

nbc-id-card
 
I had good reasons to leave my job at NBC to work at USC. I’d been at NBC for three months, thereby exceeding my quota. J and I were renting a one-bedroom apartment within easy walking distance of campus. NBC was a half hour commute through downtown on a good traffic day.

In theory, the USC job description sounded interesting.  Any psychology experiment involving human subjects had to be approved by USC’s Human Subjects Committee headed by Dr. Biel, my boss. I figured at the very least, I’d get the skinny on fascinating experiments with human subjects. Most important of all, as a full-time employee of USC, my tuition was free and my lawfully wedded spouse’s tuition got cut in half.

Young Student Geeks in Love
Young Student Geeks in Love

It looked like a great opportunity and a smart move. I hoped to learn more about exciting psych experiments like Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison experiment. Strange, twisted experiments, the type that begged to become a movie. I conveniently forgot the function of our committee was to prevent what I wanted from happening.

j-and-k-1975

For all I knew, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison debacle (Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison) was why USC formed a Human Subjects Committee. The humanistic intent was admirable, but it killed any sliver of drama, tension and suspense in proposed experiments.  If they weren’t safe and dull, they weren’t getting out of committee. Not that our candidates had much to worry about. The submitted proposals were so scrupulously safe and dull the biggest risk to human life was lapsing into a coma upon contact.

September 16, 1975

 

September 16, 1975 John and I had been married exactly one month when I wrote this entry. We’d met for the first time 7 months ago, so even though we were legally man and wife I was still in the analyzing the “dynamics of our relationship” stage. We lived in a one bedroom apartment on Hoover, within easy walking distance of USC where he was in his second year of law school and I was working on my MFA in Professional Writing. I was working full-time as a secretary for Len Hill and Richard Marx, two program managers at NBC.

NBC ID Card_edited-1

The state of my moods depended on my reactions to people around me. On this particular day, I bounced from John making me feel lazy and uncreative to Shelly buoying me up with some positive feedback. I wish I could claim that in the intervening years I stopped letting the opinions of others determine my sense of self-worth.

Mood 1

That would be a lie. At best, I’ve become incrementally better at self-validation. I’m still inclined to dismiss positive feedback as false flattery and accept criticism as the absolute truth.  On the bright side, being thin-skinned means I’m not blind to flaws – in myself or my writing – when other people point them out. More often than not, what I initially perceive as criticism can be re-construed as good advice.

Open to criticism

Mood 2

Aristotle

In retrospect, John was right that pushing me harder wouldn’t have solved my writer’s block.  Creative energy does have to come from within. At the same time, I’m immensely grateful for Shelly’s encouragement.  Without it, I might have quit. I’m not one of those writers who have to write even if no one ever reads it. I write to be read and hopefully understood – to communicate.

Mood 3

That goes for this diary blog, too. This is as good a time as any to thank anyone who’s liked one of these or commented. Your feedback and validation keep me going.

 


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