Category Archives: reading fiction

Another love story

December 2020 marked 50 years since the release of the film “Love Story” in December 1970.  This film played a role in the burgeoning romance between me and the astonishing man who became my husband a few months later.  I’ll call him Marv.

Part I

We waited in a long line outside the theater in chilly Westwood.  The air was nothing like the frigid nighttime air that would have enveloped us in Chicago, or Boston, or Cleveland. But we were in LA, and for LA it was a chilly December night.

We didn’t mind waiting. We were too enthralled with each other, with Westwood, and with the prospect of seeing “Love Story” on the big screen. 

I’d met Marv two months earlier at the Chancellor’s Reception on the UCLA campus. The reception was intended for faculty only, but the director of my legal-services support program at the law school was a member of the faculty, and he circulated his invitation to all of us working in the program.

I’d moved from Chicago in late August and was eager to meet new people in LA. The reception was taking place on a Sunday afternoon in October, and I decided to show up.  I purposely wore my incredibly fetching black sleeveless miniskirt dress with bright red pockets and made my way to the campus under a radiant California sun.

I looked around.  I didn’t know anyone there—I’d been in LA for only six weeks.  I wandered over to the “cookie table” and was pondering which cookies to sample when a woman approached me.  “Are you by yourself because you want to be, or would you like to meet some other people?” she asked.

I immediately responded that I’d like to meet other people, and she led me to a group of four men. She began by introducing her husband, a bearded middle-aged math professor, who was accompanied by three much younger men. As I glanced at the younger men, I instantly recognized one of them–a good-looking guy I’d seen around my apartment building near the campus.

The professor explained that these young men were there because they were new math faculty, and he asked me why I was there. I told him I was working at the law school.  He then asked where I’d gone to law school. When I said Harvard, he turned to the good-looking guy and said, “Marv went to Harvard, too.”

Thus began my bond with Marv.  We had Harvard in common.

I’d noticed Marv around our building but, as it turned out, he’d never noticed me. I’d seen him—alone—diving into the building’s small pool, and I’d seen him walking back and forth along a pathway that connected our apartment building (near the corner of Kelton and Gayley) to the campus.  Sometimes he’d been smoking a pipe as he walked.

I sometimes wondered: How could he help noticing an adorable redhead like me?  But I later decided it was just fine that he never noticed me because that meant he wasn’t noticing any other young women either.

Even later, I figured out why he’d been totally unaware of me.  Whenever he was by himself–in this case, walking to and from campus by himself–he was thinking about math.  Marv was a brilliant mathematician who almost never stopped thinking about math.

When we began talking at the Chancellor’s Reception, Marv discovered what I already knew—we lived in the same apartment building.  He smiled a lot and let me know that he wanted to see me sometime.

Did I give him my phone number?  I must have because a day or two later he called and asked me to go to dinner.

We agreed that I would meet him at his apartment and make our dinner plans there.  So on Saturday night I walked a short distance from my apartment to his apartment on the same floor. 

Marv and I had both searched for a studio apartment in Westwood at the same time. At the end of my search, I decided that I preferred the building on Kelton.  Hoping to rent a relatively inexpensive studio there, I returned and learned that the last studio had just been rented.  It turned out that the renter was Marv. 

So, because someone (namely Marv) had just rented the last available studio in that building, I had to decide whether to rent a one-bedroom I could barely afford.  It was a stretch for me, financially.  But I decided to go ahead and rent it. 

Destiny? 

When he answered his door, Marv welcomed me and handed me a copy of a paperback book, “101 Nights in California.”  We sat together on his sofa, looking through the book’s list of restaurants, along with their menus.  “You pick wherever you want to go,” he said.

My jaw nearly dropped.  It was 1970, and it was almost unimaginable that a man would say that to a brand new date, allowing her to choose the restaurant where they’d dine that night.  I knew immediately that Marv just might be the right man for me.  He was certainly unlike anyone I’d ever dated before.

I’d already dated some pretty good guys.  But when men met me during my years at law school, or later learned that I was a lawyer, only the few who were immensely secure chose to date me.  Others fell by the wayside.

Marv was completely secure and non-threatened by someone like me.  He actually relished having a smart woman in his life.  And that never changed.

That evening, I chose a French restaurant in Santa Monica called Le Cellier.  How was our dinner there?  In short, it was magical.  We not only had a splendid French meal, but we also used our time together to learn a lot about each other.  My hunch that Marv was possibly the perfect man for me was proving to be correct.

We proceeded to have one promising date after another.  Dinner at Mario’s, a small Italian restaurant in Westwood.  A Halloween party at a colleague’s home in Pacific Palisades.  Viewing the startling film “Joe,” starring Peter Boyle.  (We later ran into Boyle when we ate at a health-food restaurant in LA.)

By December we were hovering on the precipice of falling in love.  We’d heard the buzz about “Love Story,” and both of us were eager to see it.  So there we were, waiting in a long line of moviegoers at the Westwood Village Theater that chilly night.

The plot of “Love Story” wasn’t totally unknown to me.  I’d already read Erich Segal’s story shortly before I’d moved to LA from Chicago.  I was casually leafing through a magazine when I came across the story.

It grabbed me right away.  It was set, after all, in Cambridge, and its leading characters were students at Harvard.  I’d spent three years there getting my law degree, and I’d finished just a few years earlier.

The story was sappy and had a terribly sad ending.  But I relished the Harvard setting, and I couldn’t wait to see the film based on it.  When Marv learned a little bit about it, he wanted to see it too.

We soon found ourselves inside the theater, every seat filled with excited patrons like us, and began watching Hollywood’s “Love Story,” our eyes glued to the screen.

What did we think of the movie that night?  I truthfully don’t remember, and Marv is no longer here to recall it with me.  So I recently decided to re-watch the film—twice–to reflect on it and what it may have meant to us at the time.

In 1970, enamored with my companion, I most likely loved the film and its countless depictions of student life at Harvard.  Marv had graduated from the college in 1963, and I’d finished at the law school in 1967, so we’d attended Harvard at about the same time as author Segal (Harvard class of ‘58, Ph.D. ‘65). 

The two lead actors, Ryan O’Neal (playing Oliver) and Ali MacGraw (playing Jenny), were also contemporaries of ours who could have been Harvard students at about the same time.  Let’s add Tommy Lee Jones, whose first film role is one of Oliver’s roommates.  He was himself a Harvard grad, class of ‘69.  (Segal reportedly based Oliver on two of his friends:  Harvard roommates Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore.)  By the way, Tommy’s name in the credits is Tom Lee Jones.

Marv and I certainly relished the scenes set in a variety of Harvard locations, including the hockey arena where Oliver stars on the school’s hockey team and where I had skated (badly) with a date from the business school. In another scene, the two leads ecstatically make snow angels on the snow-covered campus. 

And I loved watching Oliver searching for Jenny in the Music Building, a building located very close to the law school, where I occasionally escaped from my studies by listening to old 78 LP records in a soundproof booth.

Overall, Marv and I probably found most of the film a lightweight take on life as a Harvard student (although darker days followed as the story moved toward its tragic end).  I’m sure we were also moved by the haunting music composed by Francis Lai, an unquestionably brilliant addition to the film that earned its only Oscar (out of seven nominations). 

Seeing “Love Story” together that chilly night must have been wonderful. 

But watching the film again, 50 years later?  I have to be honest:  I found it disappointing.

                                       To be continued

Exploring the Universe with Two Young Muggles

Last week, I happily accompanied two young Muggles as we explored the universe together.

The universe?  Universal Studios in Hollywood, California, plus a few other nearby spots.

The young Muggles?  My astonishing granddaughters, both great fans of the series of Harry Potter (HP) books written by J.K. Rowling and the films based on them.  Eleven-year-old Beth has read all of the books at least twice, and nine-year-old Shannon has seen most of the movies.  Four of us grown-up Muggles came along, all conversant with HP except for me. (I’ve seen only the first film.)  According to Rowling, Muggles are people who lack any magical ability and aren’t born in a magical family.  I.e., people like us.

For me, our trip down the coast of California was an exhilarating escape from the concerns assaulting me at home:  dental issues, efforts to get my third novel published, and—of course—the current political scene.  We landed at the very edge of the continent, staying at a newly renovated hotel on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, where we literally faced the ocean and walked alongside it every day.

Bookending our fun-filled encounter with Universal Studios were visits to two great art museums.  Coming from San Francisco, a city inhabited by our own array of wonderful art museums and galleries, we didn’t expect to be exceedingly impressed by the museums offered in L.A.  But we were.

On Presidents’ Day, we headed to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a long, long entry line stretched as far as Wilshire Boulevard.  Because of atypically overcast skies on a school/work holiday?  Not entirely.  Admission was free that day (thanks, Target), so lots of folks showed up in search of fee-less exposure to outstanding works of art.

We viewed a lot of excellent art, but when our feet began to ache, we piled back into our rented minivan and went a little way down the road (Fairfax Avenue) to the Original Farmers’ Market.  Sampling food and drink in a farmers’ market dating back to 1934 was great fun.  We also took a quick look at The Grove, an upscale mall adjacent to the F.M., buying a book at Barnes and Noble before heading back to Santa Monica for the evening.

The next day was devoted to Universal Studios, where our first destination was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Here I would at last explore the universe with two young Muggles.  We walked through other Universal attractions, but they didn’t tempt us…not just yet.  The lure of Harry Potter and friends took precedence.

We’d been advised that a must for first-timers was a ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, so we decided to do that first.  As we approached the ride, we saw Muggles like us everywhere, including swarms of young people garbed in Hogwarts robes and other gear (all for sale at the shops, of course).  As we waited in line for the ride, we entered a castle (constructed to look like Hogwarts), where we were greeted by colorful talking portraits of HP characters hanging on the walls.

Warnings about the ride were ubiquitous.  It would be jarring, unsuitable for those prone to dizziness or motion sickness, and so forth and so on, ad nauseum.  As someone who’s worked as a lawyer, I knew precisely why these warnings were posted.  Universal Studios was trying to avoid any and all legal liability for complaints from ride-goers.

I decided to ignore the warnings and hopped on a fast-moving chair built for 3 people.  I was bumped around a bit against the chair’s hard surfaces, and I closed my eyes during some of the most startling 3-D effects, but I emerged from the ride in one piece and none the worse for wear.  Nine-year-old Shannon, however, was sobbing when we all left the ride together.  Even sitting next to her super-comforting dad hadn’t shielded her from the scariest special effects.

After the ride, we strolled around The Wizarding World, sampling sickeningly sweet Butterbeer, listening to the Frog Choir, and checking out the merchandise at shops like Gladrags Wizardwear and Ollivanders.  Olllivanders featured magic wands by “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.”  (Prices began at $40 for something that was essentially a wooden stick.)

Overall, we had a splendid time with HP and friends.  But now it was finally time to explore things non-HP.  Our first priority was the Studio Tour.  We piled into trams that set out on a tour of the four-acre backlot of the world’s largest working studio, where movies and TV shows are still filmed every day.  We got a chance to view the Bates Motel (including a live actor portraying creepy Norman Bates), a pretty realistic earthquake, a virtual flood, a plane-crash scene from The War of the Worlds, and two things I could have done without.  One featured King Kong in 3-D (the new Kong movie being heavily promoted at Universal); the other offered 3-D scenes from The Fast and the Furious films—not my cup of tea.  But overall it was a great tour for movie buffs like us.

After the tour, we headed for the fictional town of Springfield, home of the Simpsons family, stars of The Simpsons TV comedy program as well as their own film.  Soon we were surrounded by many of the hilarious Simpsons locations, including the Kwik-E-Mart, Moe’s Tavern, the Duff Brewery Beer Garden, and a sandwich shop featuring the Krusty Burger and the Sideshow Bob Footlong.  Characters like Krusty the Clown, Sideshow Bob, and the Simpsons themselves wandered all around Springfield, providing great fodder for photos.  For anyone who’s ever watched and laughed at The Simpsons, this part of Universal is tons of fun.

The Simpsons ride was terrific, too.  Once again, lots of warnings, lots of getting bumped around, and lots of 3-D effects, but it was worth it.  Maybe because I’ve always liked The Simpsons, even though I’ve hardly watched the TV show in years.

Other notable characters and rides at Universal include the Minions (from the Despicable Me films), Transformers, Jurassic Park, and Shrek.  Some of us sought out a couple of these, but I was happy to take a break, sit on a nearby bench, munch on popcorn, and sip a vanilla milkshake.

When the 6 p.m. closing time loomed, we had to take off.  Once more, we piled into the minivan and headed for an evening together in Santa Monica.  This time we all took in the Lego Batman movie.  I think I missed seeing some of it because, after a long day of exploring the universe, I fell asleep.

On the last day of our trip, we drove to the Getty Center, the lavish art museum located on a hill in Brentwood very close to the place where I got married decades ago.  Thanks to J. Paul Getty, who not only made a fortune in the oil industry but also liked to collect art, the Center features a large permanent collection as well as impressive changing exhibitions.

The six of us wandered through the museum’s five separate buildings, admiring the fabulous art as well as the stunning architecture.  We also lingered outside, relishing the gorgeous views and the brilliant sunshine that had been largely absent since our arrival in LA.  A bite to eat in the crowded café, a short trip to the museum store, and we six Muggles of various ages were off to Santa Monica one last time before driving home to San Francisco.

By the way, at the museum store you can buy a magnet featuring J. Paul Getty’s recipe for success:  “1. Rise early.  2. Work hard.  3. Strike oil.”  It certainly worked for him!

 

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas!  That’s what the Brits say, right?  I’m thinking in Brit-speak right now, thanks to recently immersing myself in the world of Victorian London, and I haven’t shaken it off just yet.

The occasion? I showed up at this year’s Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party, held every year at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.

I’ve always associated the Cow Palace with the Republican convention held there in 1964.  The one where Barry Goldwater gave his famous acceptance speech, including the memorable line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  I remember watching him say those words on TV while I was at home with a high fever.  The whole experience seemed like a feverish nightmare.  A candidate for the presidency of the United States saying those words!  To a Democratically-inclined young person in 1964, Goldwater’s words were shocking.  (Fast forward to 2016, when much more inflammatory speech was hurled at the nation almost every day by another candidate for the presidency.  One, unlike Goldwater, who got himself elected.)

Back to the Cow Palace.  It’s an indoor arena known as a venue for dog shows, sporting events, rodeos, and gun shows.  The Beatles appeared there twice in the ‘60s (and U2 at a special event in October 2016).  I’d never been there before.  But there I was, along with my two daughters and two granddaughters, entering the world of Dickens’s London.

Dickens was an early favorite of mine.  During my teen years, I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and became totally enamored of the characters and plot development in both.  (I also read, or tried to read, A Tale of Two Cities, during sophomore year, thanks to Mr. Hurley.  Every girl in our class, including me, had a major crush on him, the only good-looking under-40 male teacher at our high school.  But the book was a poor choice, even for the best readers among us, because it demanded a knowledge of history we hadn’t yet acquired.  When I returned to it years later, knowing something about the history of that time, I found it quite wonderful.  Still, it was and is very different from any of Dickens’s other works.)

Later I moved on to reading more and more Dickens. Bleak House, an indictment of the law as practiced in Dickens’s London, was a favorite.  I saw Oliver performed on stage and in the movies and saw countless dramatizations of his other stories, including the perennial A Christmas Carol.  The 1982 BBC mini-series of Nicholas Nickleby, starring Roger Rees, was especially memorable.

In short, I was—and am—a Dickens fan.

So off I went to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, not quite sure what to expect.

What I discovered was a whole world of people who turned out to enjoy dancing, music, and theatrical performances inspired by Dickens and the culture of his time.  At least half, possibly more, were dressed in the Victorian fashions they would have worn when meeting Dickens himself.  Perhaps many of these fair-goers like the theatricality of dressing up this way, pretending to be in a different time and place, no doubt escaping the reality of their everyday lives.

A host of vendors offered Victorian-style clothing and hats; many Victorian-clad fair-goers may have purchased theirs at earlier fairs.  Vendors also sold things like second-hand books (some by Dickens), jewelry, vintage photos, and scented items, along with food and drink.  My granddaughters were taken with the stunning dresses, and their mother bought one for each of them on the condition that they wear them as often as possible.

We headed for a few of the performances, including a charming version of traditional Christmas carols (yes, the singers were in Victorian garb), Irish and Scottish dancing, and a typically-British “music hall” comedy.  An over-18 version began after ours and attracted a lot of people waiting in line outside the music hall as we departed (we had two under-18 girls among us).  Finally, we were treated to Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball, where fair-goers could themselves get on the dance floor and twirl to the music of Victorian London.  Just before we left, a beautifully-costumed Queen Victoria showed up, along with her retinue, to wish us all a Happy Christmas and a Good New Year.

The Dickens Fair was tremendous fun.  And it had a bonus:  it reminded me of two special times in my past.  When my husband-to-be Herb and I first began dating, we discovered that we not only lived in the same apartment building near UCLA (where we were working) but we both were also great fans of Charles Dickens.  (In London years later, Herb and I made a beeline for the only house still standing where Dickens lived and wrote.)

Herb somehow garnered tickets for a live performance at UCLA by the British (specifically Welsh) writer and actor Emlyn Williams.  Best known for his plays Night Must Fall and The Corn is Green (both frequently revived on stage and made into notable films), Williams also worked on screenplays for directors like Alfred Hitchcock and acted himself in a number of films.

When we encountered Williams in early 1971, he was touring with his one-man show, in which he portrayed Charles Dickens, bearded and outfitted in Victorian attire, reading excerpts from his famous novels.  (Some say he began the whole genre of one-man and one-woman performances. He appeared in New York as early as 1953 and no doubt appeared in London even earlier. Probably best-known to Americans is Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain.)  Herb and I were entranced by Williams’s stellar performance, and I followed it up by giving Herb a new biography of Dickens as his Valentine’s Day gift.  (Not very romantic, but Herb loved it.)

Ten years later, we learned that Williams-as-Dickens would be performing close to our then-home on the North Shore of Chicago.  At the Northlight Theatre production in Evanston, Illinois, we reveled once again in his zestful reading of Dickens’s writing.

The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps Dickens’s most memorable character.  Let’s remember what Dickens wrote toward the end of A Christmas Carol.  When Scrooge discovered the joy of helping others, “His own heart laughed.”

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I send you this wish:  May you have a laughing heart today, and every day to come.

 

 

Curl Up With a Good Book

If you have a penchant for reading fiction, guess what. You may have better social skills as a result.

A recent Harvard study asked 26 young people to undergo MRI brain scans while reading brief excerpts from novels, magazines, and other sources. The study found that reading fictional excerpts about people heightened activity in a brain system called the default network.

The study suggested that those who read a lot of fiction turn out to have stronger social skills than non-readers or people who read nonfiction. Why? Well, according to the researchers, reading fiction can improve social skills (also called social cognition) because a reader’s attention is drawn into other people’s mental states.

When the study’s participants read passages about people, there was significantly greater activity in the default network. (Reading about physical places didn’t evoke the same response.) The researchers noted that the enhanced activity stemming from reading about people linked to higher scores on social-cognition assessments.

In other words, stories with compelling emotional, social, and psychological content seem to trigger neural changes in the brain. And this apparently translates into enhanced social skills in real life.

The take-away? Reading fiction, especially stories that take readers inside other people’s lives and minds, may improve social skills by exercising the part of the brain related to empathy and imagination.

As someone who occasionally writes fiction, I’m delighted to learn the results of this study. They validate the feedback from those of my readers who’ve praised the characters I’ve created and the harrowing situations they’ve found themselves in.

As a reader, I love plunging into an absorbing story that’s focused on people with fascinating lives. Now I can envision my brain lighting up as I read an exciting passage.

I’ll bet you can, too.

So curl up with a good book—especially a story about other people’s lives. Then take a break and spend some time with your family or friends. As someone with enhanced social skills, you’re sure to have a great time.

The study, published online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, was reported in the Wall Street Journal on March 8, 2016.