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Homegrown Hollywood: Just wait to open your eyes

I'm 30 feet below the surface, my feet resting on the ocean floor, when my scuba mask starts filling with water. I'm new to scuba - in fact, this is only my second training dive - so I try to stay calm and employ the tricks I've learned so far. I...

Jessica Runck
Jessica Runck

I'm 30 feet below the surface, my feet resting on the ocean floor, when my scuba mask starts filling with water.

I'm new to scuba - in fact, this is only my second training dive - so I try to stay calm and employ the tricks I've learned so far. I push the top of my mask against my forehead and blow through my nose.

It doesn't work. I try again, and salt water flows up my nose and runs down the back of my throat. I try to breathe through my regulator, but I'm swallowing so much water it seems impossible. Against my will - and everything my instructor told me not to do - I start to panic.

I rip my mask off and plug my nose.

Why had I agreed to do this? Here I was, terrified at the bottom of the ocean, and I couldn't think of the reason why. Then I remembered.

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My husband.

Jason is an experienced, passionate scuba diver. In my wedding vows, I promised to get my scuba diving certification as a sign of solidarity and love. Despite my other important promises - like committing to him forever - Jason was most excited about the scuba part.

It had sounded romantic at the time, but now, as I held my nose and tried to steady my breathing, I cursed myself (and more accurately, Jason). What had I been thinking? Because of that stupid vow I was at the bottom of the Pacific, wriggling around like shark bait. Which reminds me of the main reason I hadn't wanted to do this.

Sharks.

I know, I know. My fear of sharks stems from a dramatic and unrealistic media interpretation, and sharks are actually loving and caring fish. Despite how many people like to remind me of this, it doesn't help.

Once, driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, the road was so close to the ocean I was suddenly overcome with panic. I was worried my tire would blow and my car would careen through the guardrail, off the cliff and into the ocean, where I would promptly be eaten by sharks.

To restate: I was worried about sharks while driving on the freeway.

Obviously, logic plays no part in this particular fear.

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Back under water, I suddenly realized I could easily swim to the surface - the sweet, air-filled surface. It was a mere 30 feet away. I could swim that easily.

I started kicking and then remembered one of the main rules of scuba: Always fix your problems under the water.

It's moments like this when being a people-pleasing-rule-follower is my greatest strength. It forces me to tough it out. I wanted to swim to the surface, but I couldn't. Not because I would be injured or something terrible would happen, but because I simply couldn't bring myself to break the rules.

I was panicking beneath a literal ocean of water, but I stopped kicking and let my fins float back down to the sand because, gosh darn it, I have principles.

I felt my instructor touch my arm and squeeze, reassuringly.

She felt around my head and eventually convinced me - Helen Keller style - to try my mask one more time. Once it was on (and filling with water) she pushed my wetsuit hood off my face so my mask could seal properly. I cleared my mask of the residual water and tentatively opened my eyes.

The ocean exploded around me - the deep blue, the fish and, most magical of all, a young sea lion staring right at me. He cocked his head curiously and swam around our whole group. He dove and twirled and played with us as we floated there, transfixed.

I could see and breathe under water. I was standing on sand that was at the bottom of the ocean. I was interacting with a sea lion in its natural environment.

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All of this magic was because I had stayed.

So much of succeeding in Hollywood is a question of who can stay at the bottom the longest. Who will refuse the lure of kicking up and out of the situation. Who will stay and see it through, even it is the most uncomfortable you've ever been.

I've been here, under the deep crush of the city, for seven years, and finally things are changing.

Finally, I'm starting to see the sea lions.

Jessica Runck, who grew up in Wimbledon, N.D., and graduated from Concordia College, is a writer and actor living in Los Angeles. Visit www.jessicarunck.com for more information.

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