" 'Fully conscious,' is how I would describe Meg," says her friend the screenwriter CallieKhouri (Thelma and Louise). "Totally engaged. It's a rare thing to want to live your life in that kind of fullness, with so much curiosity and amusement at the same time."

Ryan's take on the world is both whimsical and precise. "When I heard they were going to open the museum early for me, I wanted to invite all my friends," she says, settling herself sideways in a patio chair outside the Getty's restaurant. She looks at home here, on top of the world. "I pictured all of us skateboarding through the empty plazas." In conversation, she will pull out a snippet of memory ("I once heard a sunset described as a cinnamon-and-orange sandwich," she says) or a musing ("Isn't it great that babies are born with the desire to make you laugh?" ) and examine it with you, as if she's eager to see it from another angle, in a different light. Her trainer once told her that he was trying to conquer his fear of jumping out of airplanes. "But there's a justification to that fear," Ryan said to him. "It's not like being afraid of dirt."

Ryan lives in Santa Monica, where she takes daily yoga classes with her husband of seven years, swoon-inducing actor Dennis Quaid, 44, and delights in overhearing their 6-year-old son Jack Henry's conversations with friends as she drives them home from school. "The other day he said to me, 'When is it gonna be "someday"?' " Ryan remembers, laughing. "That really stuck with me. That's the day when we'll do a lot of s—-. We're gonna be in the car the whole day; we'll eat great things; we'll do it all."

The couple also owns a vast spread in Montana, including four sleeping cabins and a main house, christened Camp Warren Oates, after the actor who sold them the place. "We can go 100 miles in a couple of directions and not even cross a road," Ryan says. "It's such a pure experience. There's nothing there except the beauty of the world and what you bring to it. So you get to indulge things." For example, she wants to install a public-address system: "You know, 'Attention, campers. Everybody get in the car; we're going to town.' We have a flag. We're comin' up with a song — things that are so dorky but so funny when you're there." Khouri, a frequent visitor, recalls how she and Ryan once recited an ode to Mars, complete with sparklers, on the Fourth of July and paints a vivid picture of Quaid driving around in the three-wheeled dune buggy he calls the Love Boat with Jack between his legs, singing "Born to Be Wild."

In Ryan's stories about Montana, Quaid emerges as a larger-than-life figure, the one who gets things done. Her body language changes when she's aping him; she lowers her lilting voice, leans back, waves her arms, takes up more space. "Dennis said, 'We ought to have go-carts!' " she says. "So now we have this go-cart track. Or he'll say, 'See that hill? I just don't like it!' And then it's plowed down, and there's no hill, and we have this great view. He goes, 1

think we should have a lake,' and — boom! — we have a lake."

Ryan and Quaid met in 1987 on the set of their first film together, lnnerspace, and became a couple during their second, DOA, in 1988. She tried to resist him. But not very hard. "My friends and I call it the Big Oh No, because you know you're not going to have any control of it, it's not going to make sense, it's just going to take you over," Ryan says. "I don't know if I ever imagined myself being married, for one thing. But I had an idea of a guy in my head, and it was not Dennis."

What was wrong with him? Too perfect? "I guess I thought I'd be with a writer," Ryan says. "And Dennis is such a participator; he's not somebody on the sidelines. He's willing to be bad at anything for a while, and then he gets great at it. So therefore, he can do almost... " She pauses for a split second, her enthusiasm building. "He flies a plane, a jet! He's figured that out. He's an amazing golfer; he can really draw; he's a doer. Whereas I watch more than I do. When he skis, he goes down the hill fast; he's a little bit out of control. It's exciting. For me, it turned out to be great. I didn't know it, but I really needed that in my life."

About eight years ago, however, Quaid confessed that he was addicted to cocaine. Ryan insists she didn't have a clue. "When I first met Dennis," she says, "I'd read things about him in magazines and be horrified. So I stopped reading stuff about him. When you really know someone, you know that the good guy takes up more space than the bad guy."

The two postponed their wedding for a year while Quaid went into rehab. "I had this idea that drug addicts were bad people, instead of just people with a problem," Ryan says. "I think I became more curious and less judgmental. I saw how much Dennis was changing and growing, and I went, 'Well, there are things I need to let go of, too.' So it turned into this incredible time, this very concentrated time of really talking to each other and concentrated change. Like, now is the time. It's someday."

At the moment, Quaid is off on a two-week trek in India with his friend, a Baptist minister. Ryan, who loves India ( "I got such a feeling of freedom there when I finally gave up all my ideas of [Continued]