Teri Orr: Maybe a character study…
How are you feeling today? my younger friend had texted … we had skipped a day or two connecting. Like so many folks during this epic epidemic time, I am a part of few text groups who check in on each other — take turns going to the market or pharmacy so we don’t all go. We have dropped off books and chocolates and seed packets — along with bread and eggs. We are also very clear — mental health needs to be addressed in these days of isolation — as critically as having a supply of Clorox wipes. So I answered her honestly … Adrift … I replied. Hmmm she texted … explain. I told her it was the name of a short story I had written in the ’80s that I sent to a writer’s conference and it won me free admittance and my room there in a tiny little cabin on the beach in Santa Barbara or more specifically — Carpenteria. And that word — the title of my short story from back then — somehow fit with my mood on the current rainy day.
I felt … adrift.
She understood. Said if I had a copy of the story — she would love to read it. And I said I would look. Which I did … and so far I haven’t found it. I did — however — find an autographed copy of a book from my favorite teacher at that conference — famed Los Angles film critic Charles Champlin. From one columnist to another begins the inscription…
That summer before I became editor of this paper, I knew my second marriage was more than rocky. My kids — at that point teenagers — would be spending two weeks in June with their bio (logical) dad. And I intended to try something new. The trip to California — close to where I had spent summers growing up — would be perfect. I could drive down in a day and back in a day and spend a full week soaking up the ocean. I honestly did not know at the time I applied that the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference was a quiet legendary camp of cronies from all kinds of writing — Hollywood to newspapers and the impossibly crazy mix of writers and wanna-be writers who gathered. There were maybe 30 of us students and maybe 15 instructors. And I was so far out of my league I was struck mute for the first half of my time there. We were right on the beach. In a place that had been housing folks in some form since the 1920s. And the railroad tracks ran right through the property. So a couple times a day the train would slow down as it meandered past and the little crossing bar would keep us from the water or our cabins for a couple of minutes … then the train would pass.
There was a proper white beach hotel with a restaurant and bar, but breakfast and lunch was at the cafe, which was inside an old dinning car — The Whistle Stop Cafe. I didn’t know any real writers in my newish life of six years living in Utah. Just other journalists and Renaissance man Hank Louis, who created a little publication called Silver Vein, and it included stories and artwork from local folks. Charles Schulz — of Peanuts cartoons — was the mascot of the conference and the stationary included Snoopy on the roof of the dog house — typing away. Jonathan Winters hadn’t yet become the love child of “Mork and Mindy” and so he would try out new material during the cocktail hour. Actress Fannie Flagg was working on a book and was in some of my same classes. She sat down at the table in the diner one day at lunch where a few of us misfits had gathered.
“I need a new title for my book,” she lamented. “Charles (the aforementioned Charles Champlin) thinks my title doesn’t work yet.” I was pretty much mute during this period of time. I was. I knew I was so far out of my safety zone that my feet were no longer touching the sand and I was treading water or high cotton. Years later I realized the name of diner — The Whistle Stop Cafe — became the caboose to her partial title, “Fried Green Tomatoes.” The book was published and became a movie of some note.
I remember how free I also felt that week. No kids, no husband, a room of my own on the beach. I took long walks in that impossible perfect warmth of June in California. I fell asleep to the distant train whistles and I walked the grounds that had old growth trees and flowering bushes everywhere. With enough birds landing and taking off and singing it could have been a Disney movie. Like so many islands of time I had no idea how all those circumstances had converged so serendipitously.
On the final day of classes a little note dropped on my writing desk. Cottage 26 at 6. Cocktails. Do come. Charles. One of the regular attendees looked over at me and sighed. “You got one of The Invites. Enjoy.” So I showed up — along with maybe 10 other students — for a heady drink with some real writers before we all went to the final dinner to hear a reading from Ray Bradbury. And he read a bit — on that perfect circadian night from “Dandelion Wine” — an ode to summer and maybe youth.
I drove home the next day. I remember so clearly with the windows down and my long hair blowing — singing to the radio playing “Ventura Highway” and I was driving on it. What were the odds…
I returned home — not adrift — but determined to make some changes and to return again if they would have me next summer to the conference. Which I did/they did. And I made new friends who helped me make giant decisions and encouraged me when I became editor at this paper.
What did you ever do with that short story? I thought it was the perfect treatment for a movie … one attendee had asked.
What I did was — tuck it away. It was too painful to keep unpacking then. It was about the death of my imaginary friend at a beach house when I was 6. And so far — in the great excavation of my ‘Rona days — the story has yet to surface. But if it doesn’t … I may rewrite it on one of these adrift Sundays in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder and director emeritus of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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“Our community is fluid,” columnist Teri Orr writes. “Yet our actions are increasing rigid … and honestly — tired and stuck and unimaginative and nowhere near … .”