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Saturday, 1 March 2014

Postscript to the Scripter Awards

As awards season wraps up with the pinnacle of all events, the Oscars, I am casting my vote for *Best Reason to Hold an Awards Event.* And the winner is: The USC Libraries Scripter Awards. Definitely the fanciest event I've ever been to, certainly the most fun to people-watch (dress-drama was apparently a running theme among several women I talked to), and incredibly satisfying to my literary and film ambitions.

It definitely ticked all the boxes for awesomeness. And since I couldn't find any reviews of the event before I went, and because my mother, sister, mother-in-law, and friends have requested complete rundowns, here is my review:

First, I'm not a USC grad, so I'm not properly jaded about how gorgeous that campus is. All the red and white brick, the beautiful trees, and the classic architecture are as close to an east coast school as we get in California. So the drive up was lovely. Then - free valet parking. This might not be a big deal to some people, and other people might not even think twice about valet parking wherever they go, but I come from a long line of street-parkers. And my husband remembered his Trojan student days trying to sneak his car onto campus without a permit. So, free valet parking? Nice touch.

Then, right after check-in was a red carpet (A RED CARPET!!!), complete with paparazzi and our own lovely USC student-escort who held our things for the photo op, and offered to snap a quick pic with Ed's phone. Our escort made us feel like we were proper red carpet celebrities, and it was a fantastic way to enter the doors of the USC Library.

*Handsome, isn't he?

Inside we were immediately greeted by tray-passers with glasses of red and white wine, and those perfect little appetizers you know it took hours and hours to make. The little crispy potato cups with roast beef and horseradish sauce were phenomenal, and the smoked salmon thingy was a close second. But because foundation garments only go so far, I limited myself to one of each. A mistake in retrospect, because they were so very good, but I think the poochy belly before dinner reveals a tad too much about my preference for appetizer meals over the real thing.

We strategically placed ourselves at the intersection between the entering guests, the silent auction and dinner, and spent the next thirty minutes catching up with friends and watching people. To be clear, people-watching in my world is an Olympic event, because everyone has a story and it's my job (as a writer and student of humanity) to figure out as much as I can and then make up the rest.

I will digress a little to talk about dress codes. I had been informed by my Texan friend who emphatically knows these things that *black tie formal* means a floor-sweeping long dress and a tux with a hand-tied bow tie. Those suckers are hard to tie, by the way. But I did it! See...

*He doesn't actually have pink skin, in case you were wondering.

So, dress codes. Apparently the rules are changing, or they don't apply in California. I actually heard that somewhere, and I disagree with such a blanket statement on principle. We have great weather and we pay stupid amounts of property tax to compensate for it, but we are not style-neanderthals. I don't see a lot of short dresses at the Oscars (thank God! What fun would walk-up-dress-dishing be otherwise?) and they probably have the same black-tie formal distinction as the Scripter Awards on their invitation. And although this is Southern California, awards season is in winter, when it's cold. You'd think a long gown would be a no-brainer. Like maybe that tiny bit of extra fabric at the calf would somehow keep the goosebumps at bay. Because, you know, goosebumps work in very select situations. Black tie isn't one of them.

Yet despite the cold, and the black tie designation, and the price of the tickets (not even going there, but suffice to say "Wow! It was an honor to be invited"), there were quite a number of short dresses. Beautiful, stunning, sparkly short dresses. It was weird, or maybe not, but my long-dress drama had been so all-consuming that the idea of wearing a short dress seemed like a cop-out. I have the feeling I'm going to offend the short-dress wearers, but the supremely elegant way the whole event was put together frankly demanded a long dress. The Dean of the USC Libraries, Catherine Quinlan, for example, looked absolutely stunning in a one-shoulder black gown with a pair of jaw-dropping amethyst earrings that showed off her effortless elegance. And the event co-chair, Cynthia Baseman, wore her simple, long-sleeved, super-fitted black gown as if the designer had plucked her out of a line and said "You! You shall be my Muse!" My favorite dress of the night was something totally unexpected. I never really knew what avant-garde looked like until I saw that dress - a frothy, dove grey gown with a tulle skirt and a string-wrapped bodice (I'm not kidding) that made its lovely wearer appear to have just stepped off a runway in Paris. Truly spectacular!

Okay, enough digression. People-watching at a black-tie event in LA. It really doesn't get better than that (except at an outdoor cafe in Amsterdam, playing the game 'there are really only ten people in the world, who is that?'). It was a particularly literary thrill to see the legendary Robert Towne holding court, with his lovely daughter on his arm, and John Ridley, the screenwriter for 12 Years a Slave accompanied by descendants of Solomon Northup. Philomena's Martin Sixsmith was recognizable, looking much more dashing than his character in the movie, and I got to meet the real Captain Phillips. I may have even managed to be pleasant and coherent, though I'm such an unapologetic geek for writers, anything's possible. 

Eventually we moved on from our strategic vantage point to the smaller room where the silent auction items were beautifully displayed. I'm putting together a silent auction to raise money for technology at my son's elementary school so I wasn't just shopping. I was doing research. We felt fairly safe bidding on some wines we'd appreciated from a distance, and wished the dinner with the Dean of Libraries had been within our reach. But the most spectacular thing about the whole fundraising aspect of the night was their goal. The USC Libraries intends to raise fifty million dollars. Let me say that again for anyone whose eyeballs bugged out, ears buzzed and head swam like mine did - FIFTY MILLION! Talk about throwing your hat over the wall and then having to figure out how to go get it.

But during dinner (which was a spectacular menu of a goat cheese and squash terrine salad, a beef Wellington that made tastebuds positively sing, and a layered confection of strawberries, creme and pastry) the speakers charted the way over that fifty million dollar wall.

It might have been the most surprising part of the evening for me. I don't think school pride transfers with marriage, so I can't even claim that I inherited any special warmth or loyalty to USC from my husband. But listening to speeches about libraries and information and books and access was utterly inspiring. After showing a student-made film about the libraries, Cynthia Baseman spoke... right to my heart. 

"... I often hear the question, "With the internet, who needs libraries?" But I ask you: Who doesn't need libraries? You won't find cutting-edge research on Yahoo, and you won't discover brilliant insights on Wikipedia. In a great library, students discover material that gives them the 'aha' moment. A professor can deliver the most riveting lecture in the world, but students must still search for deeper understanding. And this room, this library, and Leavey Library - that's where they find it..." 

There was a point during dinner when I turned to my husband and said, very emphatically, "We need to give to this library." The words surprised me as much as they surprised him. I'm an enthusiastic fundraiser for things I'm personally invested in, but I'm more the giver of time than money. Take technology in our kids' elementary school, for example. Our ten-year-old son is having fun in his 1:1 iPad pilot class as he learns computer coding and builds his Mission project in Minecraft. He likes doing his homework and e-mailing it to the teacher, he enjoys the fact that she videotapes her lectures for kids to watch while she walks around the classroom working with kids who need individual help. The students in this class teach each other the new codes they're writing and make movies to demonstrate the science concepts they just learned. Our son's enthusiasm is AWESOME and I've become a fundraising boss when it comes to technology at his school.

This year our school is switching over to Common Core standards to bring us current with the rest of the first world's education systems. The thing about Common Core that I see being done so brilliantly in the 1:1 iPad class is the integration of what students are learning into every other subject on their plate. Students are taught to think and question and relate this fact to that scenario - "searching for a deeper understanding," as the USC Scripter event chair said. The kind they can find with the resources of a great library.

Great libraries should be some of our most treasured resources. What would our knowledge of history be if the hordes hadn't burnt the Alexandria Library to the ground? It's ridiculous how personally I take that, but not more ridiculous than the fact that I'd happily move into the Library at Trinity College in Dublin and sleep among the stacks if they took tenants.

Again with the digression. You can imagine how hard I work to keep the plot when I write my novels. My point - yes, apparently among all the talk of dresses and food and people-watching, there is one. My point is this: The USC Libraries Scripter Awards truly was the COOLEST EVENT ON THE PLANET, but not only for the reason I said before. I raised my glass to Bill Harrison when John Ridley and Solomon Northup won awards for their adaptation and source material in Twelve Years a Slave. I cried with John Ridley as his passion and purpose in adapting Solomon Northup's memoir became the biggest thing in the room, enveloping everyone in the love and joy and pride he felt at receiving the Scripter Award recognition for the work he'd poured his heart and soul into. But the thing I was left with (besides an awesome literary and film swag bag - I LOVE the Scripter Awards!), the thing that I'm still thinking about, that is still resonating in my brain as I plan the fundraiser for my son's elementary school, is the giant hat that the USC Libraries has thrown over the wall. Their passion and commitment to learning - to how students gain their deeper understanding - that is the most powerful reason to hold the spectacular, gorgeous, incredible Scripter Awards event. It's the thing that leaves the real legacy; the 'aha' moment. 

Because in this age of the internet, of Google searches and iPad classrooms, who doesn't need libraries?