A Life Without Intent

I never dreamed about what I was going to be when I grew up.  I didn’t want to be an astronaut or a doctor or the President.  I didn’t even want to be a movie star, though I was born and raised in Beverly Hills.  I just wanted to be a grown-up.

Childhood

I hated being a child.  I was told when to get up, what to wear, how to do my hair, how to spend my time and when to go to bed.  I had to take naps until I was far too old to need them so I laid in bed and peeled off the wallpaper.  I started playing the piano when I was five and had to practice for a half an hour before school and again after school.  I had to eat all of the food on my plate, even the food I didn’t like.  If I didn’t eat it, I sat at the table until bedtime.  Our dog was very helpful but, unfortunately, he didn’t like vegetables any more than I did.  I poured my milk and orange juice into the water cooler reservoir, not realizing that it didn’t go anywhere. 

My older brother, Michael, got to go to bed a half an hour after I did.  The den, where we watched television, was at the bottom of the stairs and my bedroom was at the top of the stairs.  Michael spent that half hour laughing demonically at whatever was on TV, funny or not, just to make sure I knew that I was missing out.  So, I would sit at the kitchen table, braiding the tablecloth tassels and peeling the backing off the table mats until bedtime and then listen to Michael cackle for the next half hour.

I couldn’t wait to grow up and get out.  In my childish delusion, freedom was waiting for me in the future.  Choice.  I wanted to be an adult so badly that adulthood was my only goal — I didn’t have any energy left over to think about what I was going to do when I got there.

There was a small ice cream parlor in town where we would go occasionally.  I still remember the sweet smell that enveloped you when you walked in, how happy Mom and I would be if they had peppermint ice cream and how it bothered me that the metal chairs, which were so pretty, were so uncomfortable.  I wanted to live in that ice cream shop where, for a few tantalizing minutes, there were no rules.   

My mother is a snob.  She is a snob about everything but, most annoyingly, she’s an education and grammar snob.  Be prepared for a lecture if you put any

qualifier in front of the word “unique.”  Something either is or is not unique – can’t be kind of unique or very unique – it just is or it isn’t.  My siblings and I will sometimes say “very unique” to each other, in front of Mom, just to get a rise out of her.  She rises to the occasion every time.  You would be forgiven anything, murder included, if you went to an Ivy League school.  If you went to Harvard Law and committed the murder wearing Armani, she might even visit you in prison.

I have two brothers and one sister and, for some reason, both of the boys got the big, obvious brains – the sort that would take them to the coveted Ivy League schools and make Mom proud.  My sister and I were expected do the best we could academically and then marry men who had gone to Ivy League schools.

High School

Although the local public high school, Beverly High, was a fine school, it had a reputation for being riddled with drugs and Mom, with no justification whatsoever, was afraid I would succumb to the temptation.  There was a very high-powered private girls high school, then called Westlake School for Girls — now called Harvard Westlake and no longer single-sex — that Mom believed would provide me with less temptation so that’s where she decided I would go.  However, the academic standards at this school were extremely high, so she worried that I wouldn’t get in.  She felt that I would have a better chance of being accepted into 8th grade where, presumably, there would be less competition than starting in 9th grade — the beginning of high school — when the really smart girls would apply. 

The school must have concurred with my mother’s estimation of my academic shortcomings because they accepted me into 8th grade with the requirement that I attend summer school first and pass both a math class and an English class.  I recall the math class because I discovered that a) I’m surprisingly good at math and b) my teacher wasn’t.

Math and photography were the only disciplines in which I truly excelled and, thus, enjoyed.  Everything else was very challenging and I’m not particularly into challenges.  I have always preferred to spend my time doing things that come easily to me.  When the going gets tough, I get going.  Elsewhere.

College

After graduating from Westlake, I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara.  My closest friends went off to Ivy League schools but my grades precluded me from going with them.   

Although I was perfectly happy in Santa Barbara, my mother’s bias for East-coast colleges with or without ivy on the walls reared its domineering head.  I  succumbed to her pressure and applied to Vassar College, which is in upstate New York and is one of the “seven sisters” colleges.  The “seven sisters” colleges are a step or two down from Ivy League colleges, but still carry some prestige.  I figured I wouldn’t get in, so I felt safe applying and forgot about it.  Until I got the thick envelope from them.  Even I understood that thin envelope meant rejection letter whereas thick envelope meant congratulatory letter with forms to fill out.  Since I was still young and stupid and felt there was some merit to trying to please my mother, I agreed to venture east and went to Vassar for my sophomore year.

My mother had her children in two groups:  Michael and I are two years apart and are the products of her first and second marriages, which is fairly impressive if you consider that she waited until Michael was born before divorcing Husband #1.  She then managed to find a new husband, marry him and carry me for nine months — all within two years.  There is then a seven-year gap while she divorced my father and re-married her third and final husband, Bob.  She and Bob had two more kids, Bobby and Joanna, who are barely a year apart.  By the time they were old enough to require any real parenting, Mom was tired and she and Bob had divorced.  Michael and I had been raised with very strong discipline — arguing was a losing proposition.  When Bobby and Joanna argued with Mom, she no longer had the energy or desire to argue back so they had it pretty easy, as did Mom since she left much of their early parenting to me. 

Joanna was allowed to go to Beverly High rather than Westlake — until she got an A for writing a paper Mom felt was unworthy of the grade.  Joanna had gotten an assignment to write about “love.” When Joanna told Mom about the assignment, seeking guidance, Mom  suggested that Joanna look at Bartlett’s Quotations for Shakespeare sonnets and the like.  Joanna pretended to listen, nodded vaguely and then went to a drug store where she purchased some greeting cards which she used as her source material.  Joanna proudly showed her paper with its big red A on top to Mom, who promptly withdrew Joanna from Beverly High and sent her to a boarding school “back east.”  Bobby, one year older than Joanna, was already in Massachusetts, attending Andover, a prestigious prep school, and Michael and I were older and out of the house by then.  I have always suspected that Mom was just looking for an excuse to be done with her thin pretense of parenting and sent poor Joanna 3000 miles away in order to have the house to herself.

To say that I hated Vassar would be an understatement.  I hated everything about Vassar.  After going from an extremely small high school to a very large university in Santa Barbara, Vassar’s intimacy made me feel claustrophobic.  Plus upstate New York is really cold.  And humid — the sort of humidity where you feel like you need to take a shower an hour after you’ve taken one, but you can’t because your towel is still wet and will be for another 24 hours. 

As if that weren’t misery enough, I was homesick.  I had been homesick at Santa Barbara, which was less than a two-hour drive from home, but it was much worse in New York.  In truth, I think I just missed my dog, which seems silly but was, in fact, almost disabling.  I have always had a mental image of myself attached to my home with a lifeline — like an astronaut on a spacewalk.  The further from home, the thinner the lifeline.  The longer I’m away from home, the thinner the lifeline.  The thinner the lifeline, the more anxious I become.

Despite my crippling unhappiness, I focused enough on my studies to make it through my sophomore year, thanks largely to Jackson Browne’s morose angst-filled anthems.  I had to declare a major, yet still had no real direction.  I loved animals and missed my dog so decided to study wolves for a living.  It seemed logical at the time — wolves are just like dogs, cute and cuddly and I could see myself sitting in a blind somewhere, watching them, naming them and deducing meaningful things about them.    

When I finished my sophomore year, I went home for the summer, where I got the same job that I had had the previous summer – pumping gas in a full-service gas station.  I loved that job – I got to be outdoors, it paid more than twice the minimum wage and I worked the “swing” shift – 3pm until midnight – as a night person, my favorite hours of the day. 

When I would get home from work, I’d watch the end of the Johnny Carson show.  One night when he was announcing the guests for the following night, I was stunned to learn that the wolf researcher with whom I wanted to work was going to be on the show!  Thanks to my Beverly Hills contacts, I knew the producer of the Tonight Show and called him to see if I could come to the studio the following afternoon and meet my this researcher.  I took the day off from the gas station and headed over to Burbank Studios.  My mentor-to-be was the least famous of the guests on the show, and so was last to go out and talk to Johnny.  This gave me quite a bit of time to visit with him in the “green room.”  Unfortunately, what he told me was that it was a dying field where the only funding came from government grants, which were extremely hard to secure.  And thus died my first dream.  No big loss – I was young and resilient and, in truth, it wasn’t so much a dream as a placeholder waiting for my real dream to come along. 

I Drop Out of College

As I walked to my car, I realized that I was back to square one in terms of what I wanted to do with my life.  There was no longer any reason to suffer through a biopsych major and I had no idea what to change it to.  At the end of the summer, the day came when I was supposed to go back to Vassar.  I had my plane ticket, my classes picked out and my housing secured.  I meant to go back.  I really did.  But I didn’t go to the airport.  I never did drop out – I just didn’t go back.  As far as I know, they’re still waiting for me.

I was very nervous about telling Mom, the education bigot, that I had dropped out of college.  I was expecting great wringing of hands and a lecture about how I would never amount to anything.  What I got was a shoulder shrug and, “No problem — you’re a woman — you don’t need an education — just a husband.”  I would love to say that she was using reverse psychology on me, but I had taken enough psych classes by then, and knew her well enough, to know that she actually meant what she said.  The wringing of hands would have hurt less.

The thing about dreams is that you can’t manufacture them.  I didn’t have one — not even an unrealistic one — plus I was now a college dropout working in a gas station.  This didn’t bother me as much as it probably should have. 

I considered my options:  I was quite a decent tennis player but not good enough to go on tour and the idea of teaching tennis for my whole life didn’t hold much appeal — although, looking back on it now, I realize that I lacked imagination about its potential; I was also a fairly talented pianist but, again, not good enough to make a living as a musician; I was a pretty good photographer.  Whereas making a good living playing tennis or piano requires rare talent, being a professional photographer requires only owning a camera and being able to focus it — check and check!    

My First Real Job

Working in the gas station gave me the opportunity to talk to a lot of people and, within a week, I met a man who owned a photography studio in Santa Monica and, after chatting him up, he offered me a job!  I was sorry to leave the gas station, but very excited to start my new career.  I got an apartment near the beach and started working at the photography studio, which specialized in photographing children in playgrounds and parks (as opposed to in a studio).  They had five employees, one of whom was a shrink.

For the first few months, working there was all that I had hoped it would be.  It was my first real job, I was living the exciting life of a Professional Photographer and was powering my way up a very steep learning curve.  It turns out that owning and being able to focus a camera are really not as much of a step up as I had thought.  I split my time between going out on photo shoots and editing slides from the shoots.  Despite the fact that I was bottom person on the totem pole, I was very pleased with myself.  I was a Professional Photographer and had some talent.  The sky was the limit!

The owner and the shrink spent a lot of time together and set themselves apart from the rest of us.  The employees were all required to attend weekly group therapy sessions which had the effect of making the participants acutely aware of their shortcomings.  I didn’t understand the point of that — it seemed counter-productive to me.

In the beginning, I wasn’t included in these sessions, but had a feeling that the exemption would end at some point.  However, since I was left to myself, I continued on – learning and improving as a photographer and editor.  But I knew that, as they became more comfortable with me, and I with them, I would be invited to join the sessions.  I had absolutely no desire to be a part of that ritual and knew that declining the invitation wouldn’t be an option.  I may have been over-reacting, but there was something cult-like about the whole thing that I feared. 

I Quit My First Real Job

After giving it some thought, I decided that it was time to move on.  I was afraid to face the owner and actually quit, so I quietly disappeared one night.  Like with Vassar, I just didn’t go back to work.  I doubt if he’s still waiting for me.

Despite the fact that I had only been a Professional Photographer for a year or so, the blush was off the rose and I set my sights on the next logical step — Cinematography.  (I’m starting to sound very flaky, even to myself.)

I Go to Cinematography School

One day after I had bailed on the crazy, new-age  studio, I was at my mother’s house when Bob was over visiting Bobby and Joanna.  I mentioned my interest in cinematography to him and he suggested that I apply to the American Film Institute.  The AFI was, and is, one of the premiere film schools in the country and Bob was the President of the West Coast office, where the actual film school was located.  I applied to the AFI, which is very difficult to get into and, on the basis of my still photography portfolio, got in.  I’m pretty sure that I got in based on my talent and not because my stepfather was the President of the school.

Being a student at the AFI was extremely stimulating.  Many successful, even famous, people had been through the same program.  There was a constant buzz in the air as talented people with big hopes learned their craft and dreamed of the careers that lay ahead.  Despite the fact that I had entered the school more or less on a whim, I was caught up in the excitement and found myself sharing their dreams.  I was going to be a Professional Cinematographer, which is way more prestigious than being a Professional Photographer.  The sky was the limit!

I Work on Movies

After graduating from the AFI, I worked on movies for a few years, gaining experience and waiting for my big break.  These were minor movies with very small budgets that were being made by my fellow AFI grads, but the size of the productions didn’t dampen the enthusiasm that we all brought to the sets each day.  And I really was enthusiastic and wanted this life — right up until I learned more about the day-to-day existence.  It turns out that it takes years of being a grip or a gaffer or first camera assistant or second camera assistant or electrician before you get to be the Cinematographer.  The vast majority of people who start on that path never make it to the end of the path — they either fall by the wayside or get stuck at one of the jobs along the way.  To make it to Cinematographer takes talent and passion and perseverance.  I was kind of late to the party in terms of passion and knowledge — my friends had come from small towns where they studied movies (films, to true aficionados), learned the names of their favorite writers or directors or cinematographers, made their own short films and had true dedication.  I, on the other hand, got caught up in everyone else’s dream and tried to make it my own. 

It took a couple of years for everyone else to figure out what I already knew:  I sucked at it.  Here’s why: 1) the movie industry is far too competitive for anyone without the sort of passion that I described above to conquer; 2) to be successful as a cinematographer, you should be big and burly because everything is heavy and high off the ground and I am short and smallish — indeed, there were very few women in the field at the time; 3) to be successful in low-budget movies you should not care much about personal comforts like sleeping, which, as it turns out, is my favorite thing to do;  4) to be successful in the absence of all of the above, talent can still win the day; and 5) I lacked talent.  For all of the above reasons, as time went on, I got fewer and fewer job offers. 

I Start a Business

Time to find yet another dream/career.  When I was listing my talents earlier, I neglected to mention the one thing that I do better than anything else in life:  type.  I am an absolutely phenomenal typist.  This is what I have to show for all of those tortured hours practicing the piano.

There was a small business on Sunset Blvd that took in typing – primarily screenplays – and had a stable of home typists to whom they would farm out manuscripts.  I could type 20 pages an hour, and was paid by the page, so I quickly started making excellent money.  Plus, I was able to work from a teeny tiny rented house, in my jammies, with my beloved dog at my feet.  It was neither a dream nor a career, but it was a pretty comfortable life.

After I’d been working there for about a year, we started hearing about this new gizmo called a “word processor.”  This was before “personal” computers came into existence and was very cutting edge and expensive.  The idea of storing “data”  on a “floppy disk,” making revisions and re-printing seemed a lot more efficient than re-typing pages which had only minor changes.  We weren’t really sure what it all meant or how it worked, but it seemed to make sense — typing 100 pages because the author made minor changes on a few pages kept the work and money flowing, but was exasperating.  “Word processing” was clearly the future of the typing industry and I encouraged my boss to invest in it.  But she was comfortable with her typing business and didn’t want to change.  So I decided, with typically little forethought, to start a word processing business — despite the fact that I had no background or education in business.

I borrowed some money, rented a larger house, bought a word processor, put it in the living room and was open for business.  As with starting any business, there are tons of decisions to make but with a brand new technology, there aren’t any answers.  No one had ever thought about how to store data on a floppy disk  – should you organize the files by client name?  Type of document?  How many clients should you put on one disk?  How should you name the documents as they were revised (version numbers didn’t exist at the time)?

There was another person, Don Reynolds, who was doing the same thing at the same time, across town.  Don and I became very good friends, compared notes and even farmed work back and forth to even out our workloads.  The more we talked about the decisions we had faced starting a business using this brand new technology, the more I realized that my solutions were simplistic and impulsive whereas Don’s showed intelligence and forethought.  I may have been a phenomenal typist, but I wasn’t an intuitive businessperson. 

I did learn, though, that I really liked being my own boss, so I decided to go back to school to get an undergraduate business degree.  I also decided that I wasn’t smart enough to start a business from scratch, so I started thinking about buying a franchise of some sort.  But first, I needed a better education.  Plus, the stigma of being a “college dropout” was getting to me, even if nobody else cared.

I Go Back to School

After living in Los Angeles for the first 29 years of my life, I finally gave up.  I had thought that I could never live anywhere else, but it had become so crowded that driving was impossible and there was no longer anything or anyone holding me there.  Because of my time in Poughkeepsie, home of the esteemed Vassar College, I also knew that I could never live anywhere humid or cold and definitely nowhere both humid and cold.   

Going back to school provided me with the perfect opportunity to try living somewhere else.  I chose several geographic locations and then applied to the best college in each location.

I got my acceptance letter to CU Boulder before being accepted to Boston University, so I flew to there one weekend in the spring to check it out.  I fell in love with Boulder immediately.  The skies were the sort of brilliant picture-book blue that I hadn’t seen since I was a child in Beverly Hills.  There was snow on the back range which formed a contrast with the blue that made my photographer’s eye water.  (I’m not sure why I didn’t think it would be cold in Colorado, but I think that spring day mesmerized me and I didn’t think that part through.  It’s a dry cold though.)  There was sparse traffic and affordable homes.  I didn’t even bother going to Boston – I had found my new home. 

I wanted to see what I could accomplish at CU if I put some real effort into it.  Even though I had never been a slacker, I had always had the sense that I could have done better in school.  CU accepted most of my credits from UC Santa Barbara and Vassar, which allowed me to graduate in just over two intense years, where I did dig in and did apply myself, and would have graduated valedictorian had they included the credits from my last semester in their calculations.

I Get My First REAL Real Job

Andersen Consulting, one of the top consulting firms in the world at the time, was recruiting on campus and I decided that I would apply there.  They offered me a job, which I accepted even though my ultimate goal, and the reason I had gone to business school, was to own another business.  I thought that being a consultant would be good training for my future. 

I showed up for work on that first Monday morning, terrified.  While a student, I had managed to arrange my schedule so that I could take a nap every afternoon.  I couldn’t imagine getting through a whole day without my afternoon nap and I was certain that I would just pop off at some point in the afternoon and be found, head on my desk, drooling. 

After spending my first week working around the clock on a proposal, I was sent to school outside of Chicago to learn how to program.  This three-week school was affectionately known as boot camp, which should have triggered a fight or flight reaction in me.  The classes were taught at Andersen’s world headquarters, which had been a school in its earlier life. 

The first piece of evidence that I had arrived in hell was the dormitory.  There was a very clear hierarchy of rooming situations, from the two-to-a-room-with-one-bathroom-down-the-hall for the first-year-consultants to very nice private suites for the partners.  Even though I was a first-year-consultant, I was 30 and had owned my own home for five years, whereas the rest of my “peers” were right out of college and felt right at home on the dormitory hall.  After several days of using every break to make my case for being moved off of the kiddie hall, I graduated to a second-year room with its own bathroom, which improved my life from unbearable to miserable.

We were in class for 14 hours a day on weekdays, eight hours on Saturday and five hours on Sundays — for three weeks!  The fact that I made it through the full boot camp was due only to the fact that my plane ticket back to Denver was dated at the end of the third week and I had no other way to get home.  Otherwise, I would have left by the second day.  I decided that I would not quit my shiny new job until I got safely back to Denver.  I planned to walk into the office on the Monday morning and hand in my resignation but was determined to stick it out until then.

The dramatic scene of me quitting, which had kept me going for three weeks, never took place.  When I walked into the Denver office on the Monday after getting home, I was assigned to a job at USWest, the local phone company.  I decided to postpone my exit from the consulting life until I had given this new assignment a chance. 

The first few days at USWest were spent learning the new tools which we would use to program and test our programs.  This was a completely foreign language that people rattled off like they had been born speaking it.  I was assigned a mentor and a program and told to start programming.  My programming was mechanical and accurate, but I had no idea what anything meant.  When I would go through program walkthroughs and was asked what a particular sequence of code did, I had no answer other than what the requirements said it was supposed to do.  This may sound reasonable enough, but it was like answering the question, “What color is the sky?” with “The color of the sky.”

Fortunately, after a few months, I started catching on and ultimately became quite a good programmer.  I continued working in the IT field, first with Andersen Consulting and then as an independent contractor, for almost 15 years and enjoyed it for the first ten.   I never felt that IT was the career that I had been looking for — I was an entrepreneur and should have started another business by then — which is why I had gone to business school — but it was lucrative and I had gotten lazy.

I Start Another Business

But, during my IT days, I regularly looked out for and investigated business opportunities.  

I had gotten into the habit of going to Cold Stone Creamery.  Ice cream holds a unique place in people’s consciousness.  In movies, couples are always strolling down the street (which is either wet or along a river), eating ice cream.  There is something oddly romantic and iconic about it.  It’s also soothing — there are countless movies where sad, depressed people sitting, wrapped in a blanket, in front of the TV or a fire or both.  If you go on a vacation to anywhere touristy, there will be an ice cream or gelato store on every block.

One day, I noticed a brochure for people interested in owning a franchise.  Maybe this was the business that I had been looking for — it was a franchise, a product that was reasonably recession-proof, and I could afford it.  I spent over a month researching the concept and the company and, after the sort of analysis learned while getting my business degree, decided to pull the trigger.

Q:  What is the best thing about owning a Cold Stone Creamery?

A:   Telling people that you own a Cold Stone Creamery.

The Cold Stone business model is set up so that the stores are run primarily by teenagers.  It is expected that there will be an adult around — either the owner or a manager, but most of the work is done by teenagers.  Teenagers are not quite kids and not quite grown-ups.  They’re confused.  They’re dramatic.  They don’t care about the store as much as I do.  They would rather step over a dirty napkin than lean over and pick it up — even though they can do so without grunting.  They move in and out of relationships and don’t want to work when they first get into a relationship (too distracted) or after it crashes and burns (too depressed). 

Ice cream is perishable.  It melts.  Freezers are perishable.  They break.  Especially on Friday afternoons and Mother’s Day.

Ice cream is seasonal.  There isn’t a lot you can do to convince someone to drive to a Cold Stone and pay for ice cream when it’s snowing.  Or raining.  Or windy.  Or November.  Or December, January or February.

Cold Stone is a franchise, which means that someone else can force you to spend $1000 to replace your perfectly-fine blenders with new more-expensive ones for the new smoothie program which is going to add $100,000 to your sales.  Or that wasabi ginger ice cream is going to be a big hit.    

You get all of the free ice cream you can eat.  And the pounds that go with it.

Q:  What are the two best days when you own a business?

A:  The first and the last.

I enjoyed being the Ice Cream Lady for almost ten years, but then it was time to move on again.

Time to Travel

I (We this time) Start Another Business

I Resume Professional Photographer Status