USC

March 23, 1973

March 23, 1973 Plan B

Leaving Melnitz Hall
Leaving Melnitz Hall

I knew what I did not want to do – don a cap and gown and endure an excruciating graduation ceremony. My own Jr. High and high school extravaganzas were torture. What about those magical moments, watching my own children graduate? Don’t you just want to smile all over? Uh, no.

S's High School Graduation
S’s High School Graduation

Slow-roasting in bleachers without shade, surrounded by delirious parents straining to spot their spawn in a sea of black-robes several zip codes to the south – made home schooling appear an attractive option. For the record, the only things I dread more than rituals like graduation are parades and colonoscopies.

A at his graduation
A at his college graduation

Flash forward to my son CD, valedictorian for his UCLA film and television class. Two surprises awaited me, one pleasant and one not so much. The good news was, only film and TV students participated, making it more like a party than spectacle. Lulled into a false sense of security, I thought, “this is almost a perfect day.”

CD's graduation UCLA
CD’s graduation UCLA

CD took the microphone. He singled out his wife and his father – 100% USC Trojan, undergrad and law school. He thanked them for their inspiration. No mention of his mother and fellow UCLA film and TV alum. You know, the one who introduced him to Melnitz hall and UCLA’s campus.

CD and classmates at UCLA graduation

Amazingly, I recovered from this ego-shattering blow as well as a carrot that caused me to barf at the reception. Something deep and primal superseded my lifelong distaste for graduations, parades and vomit.  So what if CD forgot to thank me? I could not have been any prouder of him. I still am.

December 27, 1978

 

December 27, 1978

“Success” was a syndicated (very slightly syndicated) half-hour talk show (and tax shelter). I recruited J’s boss, Mark P. Robinson Sr., because recently he’d been voted Trial Attorney of the Year.  Mark had an amazing history. He was the youngest wing commander in World War II and was shot down over Yugoslavia. While his plane was going down, he promised he would go to Mass every day if he survived. He kept his promise. He was broken out of a POW camp by an OSS operative, Joe Sampson, who became his permanent private investigator.

Mark P. Robinson
Mark P. Robinson

MPR was an impressive, amazing person as are his sons – Mark Jr., who won the Ford Pinto case (exploding gas tank), one of a series of fantastic results that have continued to this day, Greg Robinson, defensive coach for the Denver Broncos when they won their two Super Bowls, and Geoffrey, who J considers the coolest guy he ever met.

Mark Robinson, Jr. - Greg Robinson - Geoffrey Robinson
Mark Robinson, Jr. – Greg Robinson – Geoffrey Robinson

MPR was vice-president of the California State Bar and co-founded the American Board of Trial Advocates. In addition to being a brilliant lawyer and a devoted Catholic husband and father, MPR had a huge personality and a legendary temper. He formed and shattered at least half a dozen partnerships during J’s tenure with him. Let’s put it this way. No one ever forgot that MPR was in the room. Most of the time, that was a good thing.

Mark P. Robinson
Mark P. Robinson

Not surprisingly, J’s relationship with MPR was volatile. I was horrified the first time I heard them yell at each other on the phone and amazed when it was all smiles the next day. J learned a lot at USC Law School. He learned much more from MPR.

 

 

 

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

 

July 27, 1977

 

July 27, 1977

 

Looking for my calling

This was a transitional time in our lives. John had finished his last year of law school but wouldn’t know when or if he’d be licensed to practice until after the bar results. When we married, I was working for Len Hill at NBC. I quit to take a job at USC that gave both John and me a break on tuition. I quit that job for more time to write and immediately got pregnant.

New Mom

Christopher was seven months old at the time of this entry. John and I shared a car, which he drove to USC and work, so I was marooned in the Hillside Strangler’s killing fields (bodies were piling up in circumference around us).

70's FashionI had no idea whether or not I’d succeed as a writer. My identity was in flux. When I look back at photos taken then, I hardly recognize myself. I’m dressed like I thought a new mother or future Jr. Leaguer should dress. (On the other hand, 70s fashion didn’t do me any favors.)

Cute Family1

The part of my psyche that never changed – my constant – remains in my worry about the impression I made on Gailya.  From the time I started writing in diaries (age 12), whenever I spent any time with a friend, I second-guessed my performance in my diary – “I’m sure I bored her” was my most common review. Maybe everybody critiques their social interactions and inventories their mistakes. Even if true, I suspect most people grow out of it.

Am I any better now, 40 years later? Maybe a little. Not enough.

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