Monday, August 11, 2014

Growing An Album

One of the most spectacular feelings I’ve ever experienced happened while I was working at the Walt Disney Company in Feature Animation when I created a polished demo CD of music that I wrote.

About ten years earlier, while I was living at any number of beaches in Southern California, I had been actively writing songs.  It actually started much earlier during my junior year in high school.  As many kids of my generation had discovered, I had found that by doubling up on recording equipment, audio or video, I could edit pieces of things together.  This included hopping from one VHS tape for video to another, and also worked with using two audio tape decks.  The editing was a bit clumsy and there would remain artifacts of all sorts; rainbow streaks on video taped edits, and unsmooth transitions of audio cuts.  Oh, where was Apple’s GarageBand at the time?

My Casio Keyboard
With some more experimenting, I began to see that I could also overlay my voice using an input microphone while copying an audiotape from one machine to the next.  Pretty quickly I began to use this process to the maximum by playing an instrument, my cheap little Casio Keyboard or a guitar that I would painfully teach myself the few necessary chords to embellish a song, and I would sing at the same time while copying whatever I had already pre-taped to a second audio cassette recorder.  This process was far from optimal as during the copying of cassette tapes, there was an audible hiss, which would grow louder with every transfer.  So implementing three transfers (three overlays) was about the most that I could do without the hiss becoming unbearable.  I continued to create these recordings while either covering songs or writing my own short songs.  Because of their poor quality, I threw them out long ago.

A couple of years later, a friend of mine bought himself a TEAC Tascam 244, 4-Track Cassette Mixer/Recorder Portastudio.  This was about a two foot wide by one and one half foot high recorder with four rows of mixing pans, pots, and faders.  You would put a plain audio-cassette into, and it would record input at about two times the speed of a regular audio cassette player, thereby improving the quality of the recording.  He also had two synthesizers, an electric bass, and a drum machine.  The first thing my friend did was to lay down keyboards, bass and drums for one of his favorite oldies, “Barbara Ann,” by the Beach Boys (and probably the Wrecking Crew), and then we put our harmonized vocals onto separate tracks.  His ability to record was at such an improved level to my ears as compared to my double cassette player transferring that buying one of these contraptions became an instant goal of mine. 

My TEAC Tascam 246
And after working the summer at Hughes Market as a box-boy, I was able to save the money to head down to West L.A. Music and buy the newest model; the TEAC Tascam 246, 4-Track Cassette Mixer/Recorder.  This newer model had now SIX rows of pans, pots and faders and a few more bells and whistles.  The other capability of these mixers at the time was that they allowed one to bounce tracks.  This meant that you could take a recorded track and then record it into a new track while adding instruments.  It was kind of the same idea as I was doing with my two cassette tape machines previously, but using the Tascam, you would maintain much better sound quality.  If you continually bounced tracks, then you would start to gain a hiss as well, but there were few times where I needed to bounce a track or two more than once.  Incidentally, at about the same time, Bruce Springsteen recorded his “Nebraska” album on the earlier Tascam 144 PortaStudio model, which I believe may have been the first model in the series.  So I figured I was in good company.

So I got to work experimenting with the recording process on my new mixer, which proved to be heavenly as compared to my prior technique.  And while I still only had a little battery operated Casio keyboard, I was able to lay down better sounding tracks.  This version I did of, “If I Only Had The Nerve” was one that I did with just three tracks; one vocal track, one keyboard track for main chords, and one for keyboard track for embellishments.  I should explain too that I went for an effeminate voice and sped up the vocal track in the end for effect on this little experiment.

My Roland D-20
I was soon off to U.S.C. and studying.  In between my classes I would write songs here and there and then realized, as everyone who is aware of what they could have, that if I bought a better keyboard, my songs might sound more professional.  So I went to West LA Music again and bought myself a Roland D-20 synthesizer, which was the lighter model of the Roland D-50.  The D-20 had 61 non-weighted keys and was capable of creating hundreds if not thousands of variations of sounds through programming, and had a drum machine on board as well.  I generally used the multitude of pre-programmed sounds to get the point across in my songs.  My only displeasure with the machine was that the keys weren’t weighted.  But it was a small price to pay for all of the new orchestral sounds I could access.

My Fender Jazz Bass
This new addition gave me a great sense of power over my song-creating because I could lay down strings, set a drum track. I also eventually bought two electric bass guitars, a Fender Jazz Bass, and a Warwick Buzzard Bass, and I taught myself how to play at least well enough to lay down parts for my songs.  The on-board sequencer could handle up to something like eight simultaneous instrument parts, which reduced the number of tracks I would need to use on my Tascam.  Now I could get a clean sound.  Three example of songs I did during this time were, “Why Did We Go Wrong?”, “Something’s Come Alive,” and “Tell Me Why.”  I must have made about thirty songs during these years, whose time span extended from about 1988 through 1995.  This period covered my years at U.S.C. through living at the Sea Castle in Santa Monica and in the Venice Canals. 
My Warwick Buzzard
My goal was always to use my rough demos as blueprints.  I had friends who when they made music were so meticulous about getting everything correct and balanced that they seemed to get themselves stalled in the mud.  I always had it in mind that the musical gear I had served only the purpose of giving a rough illustration of what I might do with a song.  I always reserved the right in my head to take those rough demos to instrumentalists and vocalists later to polish them up.  I never saw myself as a performer or a musical technician; only a songwriter.  That is, a person who composed words and music.

During the time I was living at the beach, I was also able to get private song writing instruction from a very patient women named Robin Randall who was a teacher at an adult music school, and who had written myriads of songs, including some recorded by Jefferson Starship.  She and I would meet in her mother’s Hollywood home, a dark quasi-mansion of sorts at the top of Beachwood Canyon, and we would regularly work out some of my songs on her piano.  I always had a strong sense of melody and chord structure, as well as a natural understanding of how and where to use key changes.  However, my lyric writing when I began was not focused enough for songs to be sold as “popular songs.”  Though I essentially knew what my songs were about, their lyrics would meander with a style that was on the verge of free-verse and ultimately were not clear enough. 

Robin was able to help me narrow my focus to the story or idea that I was trying to tell about in my songs. She also helped me to find ways of shortening interludes that I naturally put into songs.  I had a tendency to put several instrumental breaks into my songs, a kind of, “place musical solo here,” peppered throughout my songs.  But, like the treatment of a screenplay, a song has to be concise enough to be able to sell it to a performing artist in one or two playings.  Then, at that point, they can do whatever they want with it.  Robin greatly improved my ability to express ideas in the musical medium in this way.

By about 2002, I was working in an area of The Walt Disney Company that was called, Special Projects.  My work ebbed and flowed a bit more than it had during the full on feature productions I had been working on up until then.  So I had more time for myself here and there and decided that I had enough time and money to pull four or five songs that I had written in the past fifteen years and demo them at a higher quality level. 

I found a music producer, Dave Waterbury, who had formerly been a touring guitarist for the band, Berlin, and who had a nice studio.  He played several instruments such as keyboards, a wicked guitar, bass, and he also had great recording equipment.  So I notated out my music sheets for each of the songs and hunted around for singers, some of whom I pulled from the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood.  Concurrently, I was producing a short film called, “Jack’s Gift,” and we thought we might be able to use a song for the credits, so I wrote an additional, new song and included it in the batch of music I was producing.

I met with Dave at his studio once he had laid down some of the tracks, and they sounded great.  We pulled in the singers that I found and recorded.  It was an easy process because I had planned it all out pretty well; both the notation and the laying down of vocals and harmonies.

Ross Tompkins and me.
There was one song I had written a few years earlier as a jazz standard type of tune called, “How I Loved You.”  It was about a girl I dated at U.S.C.  I showed it to Dave, but it really needed professional acoustic jazz players.  So I hired my U.S.C. jazz instructor and four professionals he played the jazz circuit with and we recorded the song in a couple of takes.  These guys were true professionals. My heart raced as they played my tune. After this, I brought in Ross Tompkins, the piano player from, “The Tonight Show Staring Johnny Carson,” to come in and put a piano track on as an alternative.  I was very proud to have met and work with Mr. Tompkins.  He arrived in a gold Corvette and looked very tan.  That’s a day I won’t forget.

I also had a talented graphic designer friend at Disney, named John Alexander, who helped me create the CD cover templates and artwork.  He was very helpful and did a stellar job for me. 

I remember delivering my finished tracks to a CD replicating company in Burbank and being very excited about being close to finishing the whole process.  And when the boxes CD’s that I had ordered were ready, I brought them to my car, broke a box open, unwrapped the CD packaging, and loaded it into my Mustang’s CD player.  And here it was.  My project was finished.  I remember feeling a glee that I’ve never felt before.  This album was something I had totally created and had brought to fruition of my own doing in small, creative steps.  I thought to myself, “Pete Townshend has lived nearly his entire life doing this, and yet, this is my first time.”  It was very satisfying. 

In order to compare one of the songs I created on my TEAC Tascam PortaStudio with a finished demo, listen to “Something’s Come Alive,” and then compare it to the final demo of, “Come On Come On.”  By the time I put the polished demo onto my CD, I had rewritten many of the verses and retitled it.  But at heart, it’s the same song about the same subject; two people who meet and risk the fear of failure for one more chance at love.

All of the tracks are available on iTunes under the artist, “Fred Herrman.”  The five-song album is called, “Watercolers Over The Sea.”  The title is a remembrance of my time writing songs in the Sea Castle apartment and watching winter storms roll in over the ocean. 

And now, I think it’s time to write some more.  All of that old equipment that I had is long since gone.  So I just need a piano, a synthesizer, a guitar and an electric bass again…but then, I should really start with a pen and paper. 

I love the rainy days and stormy nights
The watercolors over the sea
The wind sweeping through the pane
Has made it possible for you and me

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wormhole to Arizona - A Place of Pain

I had a strange thing happen a long time ago when a girlfriend who I had been living with for three years, up and moved out on me literally without any warning.  It was very odd, and several of my family members, who had already seen some questionable behavior from her in their presence, reacted with words to me such as, "That's a very uncommon thing for a woman to do.  Usually women like to talk things out when they have issues. It was likely one facet of a woman who was already very impulsive and who had little sense of introspection."  I don't have too many negative feelings towards her anymore, other than that she had trashed me to her own family, and her friends, some of which we had shared, and also that she had begun to see someone while she was still with me.  She shouldn't have done any of that.  Because of her own complicated childhood, I think that she was destined to gravely mishandle the way in which she separated from her relationship with me, and that she was also destined (at that time at least) never to have taken a long, hard, look at herself and how she interacted with the world.  Hopefully, that either has, or will change for her.  But that's all water under the bridge now.

With all of this in the past, one aspect of the experience remains poignant to me.  It was that when this was all happening (about the fall of 1993), it was extremely painful for me.  This caused me to go into a really strange place in my head, which will be difficult to describe here since I haven't completely made sense of it even to this day. 

I am not and have never abused chemical substances in my life.  The most I have ever experimented with was pot when I was fifteen, and that was only because I had a couple of friends who smoked it now and then, so I gave it a try a couple of times.  Two friends and I also took mushrooms at Disneyland once during our time at university, which was pretty interesting.  We chalked it up as a perceptual experiment.  I have pride in myself about my lack of interest in chemical substances because I had a biological father who drank excessively, so one might expect that I might have had an inclination to have either experimented with or have leaned on substances.  But I never have had the desire to mute my own pain at all.  I have always felt that surviving through pain directly strengthens me.  Having been adopted by a mother who was a child development specialist may have helped in this regard, as I was mostly open to my own feelings throughout my life.  I wasn't perfect with handling them, but that expressive channel was always there in myself.   

During the weeks and possibly months after the woman that I lived with moved out, had I been a different person, this would have been the time to have abused substances.  Believe me, I was in such pain from this experience, that I was destroyed inside.  I felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat and swung it as hard as they could targeting the glass menagerie of my heart and internal organs, and they all lay shattered as hanging shards with no hope of reconstitution.  Any person who had an inclination to take a drink, smoke dope, snort blow, or insert a needle, would have done it then without passing "Go" and without collecting a hundred dollars if they had been laden with the painful feelings that were weighing on my entire body.  But I didn't, and I never would have.  I'm not someone who would put poison into my body in order to feel better, or jump off of a building, or use any other vice to end the pain.  Somewhere deep within me I have always had the sense that as long as I am alive, I will always have the possibility of making a better life for myself, and watching the sunset on a tropical beach somewhere, hearing the ocean surf hit the rafters under me as I lay in my beach house.  Anything and everything is possible.  This, I know to be inborn in me.  I came into this world with this.  And it was reinforced from having come from virtually nothing with my biological parents and knowing even at age four that I could survive by myself on the streets while my father was passed out from whiskey. 

But those weeks and months after she moved out from me were literally terrible for me.  I was working as a Production Assistant on,"Boy Meets World," at the Walt Disney Studios, and during my very long working hours, I remember going into the bathrooms of the old Animation Building on the lot, and also in the production bungalows, and sobbing inconsolably.  I had lost the woman that I loved.  I recall one day when I had delivered some lunch and noon-time production reports to our, "Boy Meets World," Stage 2 of the Walt Disney Studios lot.  I made it there without breaking down and crying.  Upon leaving the stage, I was walking back to the production bungalows, relieved that I had kept myself together for the fifteen minutes needed to do my work on the sound stage, and then as I was walking back down one of the faux Disney streets, I started balling because I thought that no one was around and I could let some of it out that I had been holding in.  

Then, to my horror I realized that the stage manager of our production had exited the double-doored sound stage doors right behind me, had caught up to me, and was walking to my right.  She sensed right away that I was crying, and had heard about what had happened to me.  She stopped me, put her arm around me, and said, "You'll make it through this, Fred."  I thanked her and we went on.  It was very kind of her to have done that just then because in her assurance, I extrapolated that she, like every one else, had experience their own heartbreaks in the past and understood what I was going through.  The stage manager's name was, Lynn M. McCracken, and she is someone who to this day played an important role as a casual observer in helping me know at the time that I would indeed make it through the pain.  It was like having someone way up the ranks give me a stamp of approval that I was a good guy and that I would be fine in the end. 

But to finally get to the gist of this story.  During times when I was alone and without much stimulation, such as when I was either alone on a bench somewhere, or walking by myself outside, or the worst, sitting in the little loft that my girlfriend and I had lived in together, but which she had since left, I would go to this very strange place in my head.  It wasn't a hallucination or a delusion; I'd be willing to go as far as to call it a dissociated state of mediation.  It was simply a place my mind would drift off to for lack of better distraction.

The place was in the middle of the Arizona desert at night, looking almost straight up at the cold stars in a clear sky.  It was a surreal place because it was as if I was actually standing on the sand and gazing up at the last possible hint of blue crescent twilight conceding to a black starry background over a barren wasteland of loneliness.

I've thought over the years of how I could describe the experience to someone.  The only thing I could think of, which still seems mild to me, was for a person who always had Christmases with their close family and friends for their whole life to be suddenly sent into the middle of a mountain range alone on Christmas Eve, and with nil warning.  

In my desert, it was as if civilization itself had dropped off of the horizon and I was there cast off as a lone human being under a vast, eternal universe.  The atmosphere was either warm with a summer evening breeze, or it was very cold, as if in the midst of winter.  I experience both of these conditions there in my head during my visits.  And the feeling I had inside was of utter desolation. 

And in the abject desert silence that I would experience with each visit, whatever warm or cold wind that might be moving across the sands would literally blow through my body without regard to my own mass as a physical being.  I was unprotected and exposed to the elements of the unbounded cosmos.  I would continue to drift off to this place for the first few months after the break up, and then my visits gradually became less frequent. 

I believe that I had a very strong reaction to my girlfriend's leaving me because I have some issues regarding my biological mother who abandoned me emotionally when I was very young.  So the experience that my girlfriend, the first woman who I had ever had a long, ongoing, intimacy with, put me through by virtue of her surprise exit from my life was magnified by this earlier experience.

And as for my mind's choice of location:  I think that I conjured it up in relation to a place my girlfriend and I had previously visited.  Maybe a year earlier, we had gone to visit her relations in a small town in Arizona.  It was a small town where her uncle worked for the government.  And somewhere either in her aunt and uncle's small town, or during our nighttime travel to or from there, I had surely glimpsed at and been impressed by the clear, starry nighttime sky there and had filed it into my memory banks, which I obviously drew upon later. 

I have to think that the place that I would go to in my mind during that period of pain was a location and a means for me to represent the loss that I felt from my former girlfriend, and also tangentially connected with harmonic shades of emotions from my early childhood, experienced and presented in a visual way for myself.  As odd and distasteful as it would seem, somehow this very stark, calm place I went to helped me cope with that pain.  But when I think of that place even now, it feels as alien to me as it did back then.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Home Drive By - Some Self Soothing

Since my parents died and their house was sold by their trustees, I've had moments where I have driven up their street as if to verify, this was my home.  It's a slight compulsion, and not one that happens all the time.  But since their death, just two and a half years apart from each other, I've done just that five or six times; maybe more.  

Just a couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend was out of town and I felt a little bit alone.  With her absence, there was a vacuum and I started thinking about my former life with my parents, which doesn't seem all that long ago, but in retrospect, was eight, ten, twelve years in the past.  My memories of my mom planting bulbs in the front yard flower beds, and of my dad sitting at the family room table, carving out a slab or grapefruit while watching a baseball or football game, are based during a time during which they were still healthy.  It was before the period when they were diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.  And I realize that these memories I have a from further back than my emotions would lead me to believe. 

And so just recently, after getting myself some dinner, I had one of those inklings to drive over to my old neighborhood.  It was about 8:30pm when I parked my Jeep just down the street from our old house and got out to feel and smell my old street.  Most of the same houses are there from when I grew up, but many have been extended upwards, backwards or both, to increase their square footage, and many yards have had a fair amount of light-scaping added to them for evening ambiance.

I walked up the street from my car, noticing the rural type of curbing that I played on so many years; that is, no curbs.  The asphalt just ends at people's lawns, probably similar to how many streets were first laid out in the early San Fernando Valley.  Unlike other times that I have executed these visits, I asked myself to note how I would feel before, during, and after, this time. 

Beforehand, it felt like a sort of need in myself.  The idea of a drive by seemed a way that I could be closer to my parents and my earlier life because that neighborhood reeks of all of it to me.  It felt like I could satisfy the desire to be near my parents again by being on their street. I felt that I could maintain some sort of connection with the neighborhood which is, in a way, still supposed to be mine; like getting back a piece of something that I had lost. 

I walked up nearing the frontage of their house, which is segmented with a flower garden against the street separated from the asphalt by railroad ties that the owner before us had installed in 1974.  Then about five feet back on the other side of the garden, I supposed where the legal set back from what is actually city owned, is a wooden ranch fence that extends the entire width of the property, followed in back by our green lawn populated with birch trees that I didn't want them to plant.  I felt that a wide open lawn would have been better and easier to maintain rather than planting new trees.  Also, given that an old tree had once fallen onto our roof in a storm, I didn't feel the need to test the gods again.  But, my have those trees grown in this short time!  Following the lawn, more flower beds and then the front edge of our house. 

I looked at all of this in the still of the night.  The new owner had put up brighter flood lights than we had, and had also painted our brown ranch style cape cod home with a light whitewash.  I am guessing the new owners didn't ask me because I wouldn't have approved.  It's too trendy a paint job in my opinion.  Still though, as I was now directly in front of the property, everything else was still set up the way my parents had it.  The location of the trash cans, the hose, the flowers, the security company stickers on the front door window panes.  I can readily imagine pulling into the driveway, opening the front door with my key, and finding my mom in her den doing some paperwork, and my dad sitting at our round family room table with a spoon scraping out the last bit of orange Sherbet ice cream from a small bowl.  But there were two new model SUV's parked in the driveway that I've seen a few times as I have driven by.  "Someone must be visiting my parents," viscerally echoes through my head.  "Nope Fred, they belong to the owners," says the same voice in response. 

"And how do I feel now?"  I miss this house, and I miss my parents.  It's not entirely painful to stand in front of it on this pleasant summer evening.  And I'm not sure that I'd want to still be living in the house that we bought when I was ten years old, but I wish I still owned it.  It feels like it's mine, and it does tug on my heartstrings a little.  And it somehow soothes me to see it. 

Up the street by just a few houses, on either side, are two huge box type homes that have been newly built from the ground up.  They are both much too big a footprint for their respective lots and are imposing to the other, smaller, more elegant homes on the street.  Someone asked me recently after I told him about my occasional visits, "What would happen if your parents' house was razed and a new home built there?"  And I hesitated.  "I would indeed have a problem with it for a little while because of this need I sometimes have to validate my life with my parents by seeing our old house on our old street," I answered.  

I've been lucky in this respect because all of the homes that have been significant to me in my life are still there.  The places I lived in with, first, both my natural mother and father, then later with my father are still there.  The house that I was adopted into near the Mulholland Tennis Club in the Skyline development is still there.  All of the apartments I've lived in around Los Angeles (with the exception of one on Brockton Avenue in West L.A.) are still there.  So I haven't much dealt with having a house disappear and not being able to see it for myself again.  Obviously my goal is to just accept and integrate my past life with my present Fred without having to see these places, but I'm not totally there yet. 

And so after walking up past my parents' house a little, I turned around for another view of the well lit front yard.  I could just slightly see into the front entry from the street.  I was sure that the owners were on the phone or watching television as I passed by.  As I walked back to my car, I asked myself, "How do I feel now?"  I feel okay.  I feel like I got it out of my system for now, for this month.  I know it's not my last time coming by, but I don't feel ashamed of needing to see my childhood home as maybe I might have supposed before I made my visit.  I feel like I miss my parents, and I still mourn their passing because I am a human being.  And at this time in my life, this is my way to mourn and to remember them.  And now, I feel like it's time to get into my Jeep and drive home.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dennis Wolfberg - A Legend in My Book

Sometime in about 1990, when I was still living at the Sea Castle in Santa Monica, I invited my girlfriend, and about five other friends out for the evening.  We all had dinner in West L.A., and then I didn't really have a plan after that.  We finished our food and were ready to head onto some other activity when I remembered that not far from the restaurant was a small comedy club at 11637 Tennessee Place, West Los Angeles.  It was called, IGBY's Comedy Cabaret, and was a 190 seat capacity club with small tables and chairs. 

When we arrived at the club to investigate who was on that night, Dennis Wolfberg was scheduled to perform.  I had seen him a few times on television and remembered that his observational type of comedy was very funny.  I remember thinking that it was an off night, such as maybe a Wednesday or a Thursday evening,  and that the club was a little out of the way too, being just off of Pico Boulevard near Barrington, just west of the 405 freeway.  So I was surprised that we would get to see Wolfberg so spontaneously. When we sat down, we were in about the second row of tables, and the place eventually became about three-quarters full. 

And after a warm up by Robert Lee, Dennis Wolfberg came out and did a routine about his wife's pregnancy and child's birth that made the group of us curl up fetally with laughter.  He had so finely honed his craft that when one listened to his show, one literally hung on every word that he said.  He had a way with emphasizing his speaking with a volume and clarity that reminded me of a well enunciated professor.  In addition, he would bulge his face as he accentuated his story elements.  His routines were a tapestry of brilliant writing and stage acting. 

I would later see him performing this same routine on the Tonight Show and on other television programs, so maybe our audience was part of the final testing ground for him before releasing this routine to the world.  I think that had he not passed away shortly after our encounter with him, he would have been one of the better known stand up's (make that legendary) in entertainment history.  Wolfberg was just that gifted. 

The Effect of a Fourth

The 4th of July holiday always brings back to me a memory of one 4th when I was on a bus, from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Arizona, during my search for my sister.  The reason for this specific trip was that I had just found the mother of the man and woman who had stood in as God parents for my sister at her baptism.  As I did all things in those days (around 1984), as soon as I had acquired the information about these people, I was on a Greyhound Bus as soon as possible to get over to her and meet her. 

During this outbound portion of the trip, I left on a mid day bus, so that by the time the bus got into Arizona, it was getting around 9:00pm, and being that it was the 4th of July, fireworks shows began to appear in the dimly lit skies from different parts of the city.  I recall one parking lot near a recreational field that the bus had to either drive through or near where there were a lot of youngsters tailgating with drinks and coolers and watching the fireworks.  I was sitting on the left side of the bus and I looked out of my window, separated from the activity and sound by my window, and I saw such excitement and pleasure on their faces.  I could see that there were groups of friends and families, being with each other for the spectacular show that was occurring. 

Because of the direction that my bus was going, and because the window tops were rather low on my bus, I could not see the actual fireworks, the source of which were above the roof of the Greyhound bus and about ten-o-clock above my left shoulder.  My view was of lights and colors changing and illuminating the vehicles and faces of those watching in the parking lot.  Teens and kids waved sparklers as the fireworks exploded above them while their moms and dads chatted and laughed.  This scene made an impression on me.

Though I had been to many fireworks shows with my own family and friends, somehow being separated from it all and witnessing the reverie that these folks were exuding made me feel how special these times of gatherings are; a 4th of July, a Christmas, a New Years.  When one is distanced from it all, as through a thick pane of observational glass in some scientific setting, it becomes even clearer that we as humans are so capable of intense pleasure and bonding, and that on the balance, we seek these moments for connection with ourselves.  It's nice to see so many happy people all at once.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Memorial for Marilyn

This past Friday was the memorial service for the matriarch of one of my favorite families.  She left behind three children, who I love, and three grandchildren.  Here are some words that I wrote, and which I spoke during the service:

Hello.  My name is Fred Herrman, and I was Trish’s high school boyfriend.  Trish and I met during our tenth grade year, though I had already noticed her in middle school wearing her government sash at a lunchtime assembly, but that’s another story.  Pretty soon after we got to know each other, she invited me over to her house to meet her parents, Marilyn and Dugan.  Being that this was my first-ever real girlfriend, I didn’t know what to expect from my new sweetheart’s parents.

I wondered to myself, would her parents like me?  Would they be critical of this guy who was dating their youngest daughter?  Would I know how to behave around them? 

And then I met them.  Marilyn and Dugan were very kind to me and made me feel comfortable right away.  As I remember it, pretty much as soon as I walked into the house, Marilyn, who had stationed herself in the Varna house kitchen, offered me a little snack, along with some lemonade.

As time progressed, I found out that these two people were very generous and welcoming and took a genuine interest in me, and I noticed that they were like this with all of Trish’s friends.  These were good people.  And as more time went on, I was invited to beautiful Bass Lake for summer vacations and was made to feel a part of the family.  And there were occasional Jackman family arguments that I witnessed too.  “Wow! They even feel comfortable enough to argue around me? Good!  They’re a crazy Jewish family just like mine! Now I really feel at home!” 

I will never forget this and I have carried these experiences around with me throughout my life.  The litmus test for anyone’s relations that I meet are, “Do they approach the very high bar of love and sincerity that Marilyn and Dugan showed me all of those years?”  And, as expected from being around people such as Marilyn and Dugan, I quickly fell in love with them.  How could I not?  They were real, and they were fun to be around, and they were always “there” for everyone.  I always loved Dugan’s endless cavalcade of stories, especially the one where he described how he had applied to, but was rejected from the U.S. Navy, because he was just plumb too short.  So he kept searching varying armed forces divisions until he found just the right one that didn’t care so much about a person’s height; The United States Coast Guard, where he was accepted and served for our country. What tenacity he had!

And for every story that Dugan told, there was Marilyn right along his wing, while readjusting a hallway chair, fluffing up some sofa pillows, or untangling the vacuum chord, throwing in a corrected fact here and there to Dugan, or rewinding him back a bit to cover some appropriate and necessary additional back-story.  A story session could go on for forty minutes or so.  But it was always fun because Dugan had a punch line buried in there somewhere, and it was worth the wait.  They were quite the story-telling duo!

And when Trish and I finally went our separate ways sometime towards the end of high school, I not only suffered the heartbreaking loss of Trish, but also of this great family.  Because, you see, all of it went together;  Marilyn, Dugan, Susan, Mitch and Trish, their family’s way of life, and all of their collective experiences that one could live vicariously through.  And that’s a lot to miss out on.

With Marilyn’s passing, I have to think of Stephen, who I was never fortunate enough to have met, but of whom Trish always spoke with glowing admiration and love.  She told me in high school that she would never cut her hair because Stephen always liked it long on her.  And now I think to myself that Marilyn can finally be reunited with her eldest son. 

My dear Trish, your mother loved you so much.  It was just as obvious as the summer San Fernando days were sunny.  Marilyn lived her life around you and all about you.  And that’s a really nice thing for an impressionable sixteen-year old to witness.  It reinforced in me that family is everything.  Marilyn was her family, and so you are this very minute the living part of her and always will be.  Her absolute success as a mother and as a person are reflected in each of her children and their respective stellar characters and passions for life.  

Marilyn always talked about you, Trish, Susan and Mitch; what you were all doing, the funny thing you had said just the other day, how she loved your involvement in school and life activities, and how constantly picky you were, Trish, about matching your clothes to your Espadrilles. I truly believe that Imelda Marcos was taught how to collect shoes by Trish.  In fact, I’ll submit this fact to Wikipedia tonight.

Saying goodbye is not easy. And believe me, I am right here with you.  As you know, my mother passed away just this last February, and my father just two years before that.  And it’s a hard thing; a very difficult thing. Because when someone you love so much, leaves you, it takes a while to really understand what you have lost.  It’s a mother (like Marilyn), or a father (like my dad), or a sister (like Kim’s Karen), or a brother (like Stephen) who you could always go to and bounce an idea off of, or call when you’re feeling a little down, or lonely.  They are the people who you can confide in and the people who know all of your back history, and who know your complicated baggage.  All of that counts for a lot in a people you trust.  And when they are no longer here, it’s really like an appendage has gone missing, and it takes a very long while to get somewhat used to it, if nearly at all.  That’s what I miss the most in my own life; calling my mom and dad, or dropping in on them just to talk and work out my own stuff while they listened. 

And one of the things I experienced after I lost my parents was to constantly ask myself, “Did I do enough? Was I there enough for them? Did I give enough of myself? Was I present enough throughout their struggles? Was I too selfish with my own time?”  Trish, I know that you are struggling with a bit of this, and I can tell you that ultimately, the answer for all of us is, “Yes, we did do enough, and yes, we were present enough.”  Our parents have always loved us for who we are, and we did the best that we could given our own complicated and imperfect lives.  “Yes Trish,” it was enough in Marilyn’s eyes, among other reasons, most importantly because she has always known how much you loved her, which I and everyone in this room know to be, with all of your heart. 

What I know for you three, Trish, Susan and Mitch, is just how lucky you are to have one-another, both through this very hard time, and throughout your lives.  Because it is the knowledge of one-another’s confidences, and history, and baggage, that makes you the family that you are. And as I myself learned from my time with the Jackman’s, in the end, family really is everything, and trust me, y’all came from a good one!  

I love you, Marilyn.  I will always remember the hugs you generously gave out, that told me, “You are at home here,” and I will always remember your laughter, with great love and affection, for the rest of my years.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dixie Chicks - Hits That Will Never Be

My girlfriend and I play a game I made up one time when I was channel surfing our cable system.  Toward the high channel portion of our cable service, we have a load of strictly music channels.  They show different photos and facts from whichever band they are playing a song at that moment, and one night I told her to close her eyes as I moved from country channel to country channel and identify the songs she heard.  The channels range from current country, to pop country to 90’s country to classic country.  So, pretty much all of the artist are represented in the batch, save folk and bluegrass music. 

In short order, this became a competition between us.  We now both close our eyes and use our music recognition skills to recognize and call out the song before the other.  See, she grew up out in the country surrounded by country music, and I grew up in Studio City on ‘70’s and 80’s rock and roll.  So one would think that she would beat me at this game all the time.  But in the years since 1997, when I discovered how much I liked country music, I have brushed up on my listening repertoire, and so I win a lot of these games.  But we’re actually pretty even when all is said and done because there is some deep country stuff that she knows from her mom and her gramma’s years of listening that I just don’t have the reserve of knowledge for.

So last night, after we had watched a few of our DVR’d shows, before we turned off the T.V., I said, “Hey, let’s try a few,” and I went to those upper country music channels.  I think the first one was a Tim McGraw tune, then a Dolly Parton tune, then a Clint Black with Lisa Hartman tune.  We probably did about ten or twelve of them when I hit one of the channels that was beginning a song with a familiar arpeggio acoustic guitar.  Right away I recognized it as, “Cowboy Take Me Away,” by the Dixie Chicks and called it out before my girlfriend did.  “Ha! Won that one!” We both laughed, and yet, simultaneously my heart panged with sadness as it often does when I hear a Dixie Chicks tune.  I enjoy hearing their songs so much, but for the last ten years, I’ve always felt a mixture of enjoyment and sadness with their music. 

I first discovered the Dixie Chicks in 1998 the same year or two that probably everyone else did.  It was during the release of “ Wide Open Spaces.”  It was so clear to me when I heard this song and the album that this was an extremely talented, and original sounding group.  I loved the freshness of the acoustic instruments they used and the tight female harmonies.  And I thought that the lead singer, Natalie Maines’, voice cut through the other vocalists on the radio with a determination and spit that I hadn’t heard before.  They won the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award, an award that at the time I had hoped the Wilkinsons would take home.  I sensed that the Dixie Chicks were on their way to stardom.

I remember one night as I was driving up California Highway 14 on my way from Burbank to Ridgecrest to visit a friend, that I was in an area that was pitch black between Mojave and Red Rock Canyon.  “There’s Your Trouble” came on the radio, and as I sort of floated along the highway at seventy-five miles per hour, I felt energized by the Dixie Chicks’ song in the little cockpit space of my Mustang in the middle of the desert.  I have a lot of great memories of places and times enjoying their tunes.

As time went on I heard more of their music, and as people started knowing that I was enjoying country music, the Dixie Chicks were one of the groups with which friends and colleagues would connect to me.  There was a woman I worked with at Walt Disney with whom I had a lot of tension throughout our years there, and literally the one moment of enjoyment that I remember sharing with her was when she came into my office late one evening, again as a person who knew of my newly found appreciation of country music, and she showed me that she had bought a CD of, “Fly” because she had heard that song, “Cowboy Take Me Away” was on it.  She asked me what I thought of the album, which I felt was a nice gesture on her part, and I told her what a great choice she had made in selecting it and talked a little bit about the album with her.  It was a nice few moments for us.

I’ve thought about what the meteoric rise of the Dixie Chicks must have seemed like to Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, who had left the group before Natalie Maines joined Martie McGuire and Emily Robison.  It must have been the same for them as the fifth Beatle or the drummer that Keith Moon replaced in The Who.  They saw a band that they had previously been a part of ascend into the stratosphere.  The Dixie Chicks sold millions of records, were in music videos and constantly lived on the radio.  It was a phenomenal rise.

I recall hearing about it on the radio on March 10, 2003; that the Dixie Chicks were somewhere in Europe and had said something about the President and something having to do with war.  It was just a sliver of information, and I kind of passed it off as an entertainer getting political and the news media running with it for a night.  But as the days went on, this thing didn’t seem to go away, and I heard more about how the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, while performing in Shepherds Bush Empire Theater, England, had said that she was ashamed that the President of the U.S. was from Texas, and that she didn’t like the idea of going to war.  These celebrity hiccups still seemed somewhat commonplace in my mind.  Actress and activist Susan Sarandon had said things in very public forums, such as the Oscars, and I’d heard of other celebrities saying things here and there that turned heads or got them into temporary hot water. 

But I must admit that as I was waking up to the idea that this story might play for a while in the media, I was a bit surprised that it was one of the Dixie Chicks who had gone on some sort of political rant.  The reason is that my personal conception of the Dixie Chicks had been that they were these sweet, probably conservative daughters of the south, who had decided to go into music and had formed an astoundingly great trio.  It really never had occurred to me that they might, either as a group, or individually be more liberal than I had imagined.

And while there is nothing wrong with some of this kind of contrast, I found it surprising that she would say something out loud that would so much clash with her public persona of being with this country group.  And I know by writing this that I further ingrain the idea that all country music and musicians are conservative, or that they put out a conservative image.  I know that not to be true.  I think that musicians who struggle over many years tend to experience many sides of life and as a result could have any of a myriad of varying political ideologies.  There is, however, a very large fan base that is conservative that likes country music, and of course, Natalie knew this.  And I think when we love actors or groups, we tend to make fantasies about their lives, and maybe there are ways of not shattering those fantasies for your fans all in one night.  So overall, her straight out criticism did surprise me.  I can’t deny it.  It’s like when I found out that the female cat I had been living with for a year in Venice Canals was actually a neutered male. Whoa!

What went though my mind, and I’m being totally honest here, and of which I am not quite proud, was this.  “Oh boy, here’s yet another celebrity who has decided to use her public face to push her political agenda.”  My feeling was that it’s been the fad of the last couple of decades for celebrities to push political agendas.  And a multitude of Hollywood activists flashed through my mind.  I say that I’m a little ashamed of this reaction because who am I to judge what someone wants to say at their own concert?  But I think a lot of country fans had a similar visceral reaction.  They were surprised and put off by her remarks, and they experienced an immediate change in their perception of who comprised this great band.  It’s the old, paradigm shift causing cognitive dissonance, but in an entire fan base.  

Another thing that surprised me during one mornings was that while I was listening to my clock radio go off, trying desperately to wake me up and get me out of bed and into the shower for work, KZLA, the country station was playing as usual, and then when a song that was playing finally ended, the drive-time host, Peter Tilden, came on and stated that KZLA would not be spinning any Dixie Chicks records.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Really?  Is this THAT serious?  I thought it really strange that Peter Tilden of all people, a cool Philadelphia to L.A. transplant, had to make this announcement.  He often had huge Hollywood friends calling in such as Sylvester Stallone and major stars of all kinds.  I just couldn’t imagine an L.A. radio station taking this stance.  I’ve since found out that a much higher strata of music company executive was involved in this decision-making. 

And that’s when I really started to feel bad for the Dixie Chicks.  Unlike Natalie Maines, I do believe it’s a good thing to be patriotic about one’s nation, especially ours.  The United States is indeed the best nation on this planet by way of giving people the opportunities for work and life dreams, and for people to speak as they wish without fear of retribution.  But now it seemed as though the tables had been turned on the Dixie Chicks.  They had used their American right to free speech and were getting wholly shut out of the country music industry.

And you have to remember, we were about to engage Iraq in war because of the supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction.  At the time, people were really nervous about this.  All of these ingredients made for a really bad time and platform from which to make her remarks.  Whether Natalie Maines likes this fact or not, it really was bout the WORST time she could have said this.  People in mid America had sons and daughters who would soon be shipped out to Iraq, or who were already there. They could die soon.  That was exactly Natalie's point, but I feel that her comments that night sounded like someone making a criticism that had no personal investment in any of it.  And while I know she felt she was invested and didn’t want needless war deaths, I don’t think most fans took her criticism of the President, and later, or patriotism, in a productive way.  An entertainer has to remember that they are in the business of entertainment and in the business of celebrity within whatever genre they are in.  And though I know what she said was spontaneous, I think that people who have that much fame and power need to realize that their words can have permanent consequences and impressions.  It’s the same reason why if Donald Sterling either thought before he spoke, or ran his words by his attorney first, he probably wouldn’t get into so much trouble.  But Natalie Maines did say those things, and now it seemed like the whole nation was against the Dixie Chicks because of it.  But the fact that companies were now banning their music from being played; it was just too much of a reaction in my opinion. 

I personally don’t think her speech that night was worth it.  There could have been other ways for her to become active gradually in the public eye, but the way she did it was much too costly.  It basically ended the Dixie Chicks' career.  And at the same time, I don’t understand is how this rejection by the country music industry has continued.  It really doesn’t make any sense to me.

I listened to an interview on YouTube in which Natalie Maines is the guest on Howard Stern, and during the show a caller called in from Dallas, Texas and said that he had requested that songs by the Dixie Chicks be played on two different radio stations, and he was shut down with, “We don’t play the Dixie Chicks on this station.”  Both of them!  This was 2013.  You mean, people are still so angry at the Dixie Chicks even now that the stations won’t play their music?  I mean, that is just crazy, as in the definition of “crazy.”  What do they think, that the Dixie Chicks, an American country music group that was from Texas is the ENEMY???  Pardon me, but that IS stupid!  And it’s censorship.  We lived in America where we have the ideology and legal right to free speech.  You as the consumer don’t have to buy their records if you don’t want, but to say they CAN’T be played on radio stations?  I think the music industry needs to rethink what they are doing in the business then.  The documentary, "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing" covered a lot of the ridiculousness of the radio industry's and fans' reactions.

During a video taped Time Magazine interview with Belinda Luscombe, Maines was asked by Luscombe if she is the current hold-out from being in the Dixie Chicks full time.  She asked if Martie McGuire and Emily Robison would continue to be in the Dixie Chicks if Natalie would, and she said she thought so.  For Natalie, the way they were treated by the country music industry just hurt too much, and it proved to her that, while she had come into country music already a liberal thinking that the community had accepted her, in reality they hadn’t.  In fact, most fans didn’t even know of her political beliefs.  So she feels that the country music community isn’t for her anymore.  She seems to have lost her passion and her fire, and that’s really sad for someone so talented.  And I think again of Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, the women who had previously been members of the group, and what this must have looked like to them too.  From the stratosphere to nothing in no time, like the Challenger explosion or the Hindenberg. I wonder if in a way they were ultimately grateful not to have experienced all of that. 

Now I will reveal that sad part of all of this for me; the thing that pangs my heart when I hear their music.  It’s that musicians, or anyone who has mastered something, have spent countless years honing their craft, and when you get a group that works so beautifully together like the Dixie Chicks, the chances of that are very slim to ever happen again.  If that all gets thrown away because of a poorly time comment fueled by an overreaction and hysteria from the general public, then I really think that it is truly tragic.  And to think that there is a music industry deliberately blocking a talented trio of women from making music?  Well, that makes me close to ill.  There are a few lucky human beings on this planet who have had more than one life making music such as Paul McCartney in the Beatles, then in Wings, and then as a solo artist.  He’s really part feline, isn’t he? And there are some others, but it’s an extremely rare and unlikely scenario to have that kind of longevity that survives multiple self-reinventions.  I have also often felt this sort of sadness with the performing and music-making aspect of Michael Jackson’s life given all of the legal issues that he created for himself that took his focus away from his artistic work.  We missed out on so much potentially incredible music. Martie and Emily seem like innocent casualties in all of this to me.  They stood by Natalie, but there really wasn't any other choice for them, and they had worked so hard to build the Dixie Chicks band for so many years. 

And so during all of these eleven years, though the Dixie Chicks came back in 2006 and won five Grammys for, "Taking The Long Way Home," we could have had another thirty? fifty? hundred hits from the Dixie Chicks that don’t exists because of all of the chaos that ensued.  That is heartbreaking to me.  Because when I hear really great music, it makes my soul soar.  When I listen to the Dixie Chicks’ cover of, “Landslide,” with Natalie Maines' vocal and Martie McGuire and Emily Robison's heavenly harmonies, my heart slides.  It’s music mastery at it’s perfection.  And with all of the Dixie Chicks’ experience together and with their previous iterations with Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, they have so much music playing life under their belts.  That’s irreplaceable. And so I mourn what has been lost with every pang of my heart.

I looked up the website, that seems to sit idly awaiting some kindly hand from God, and I click on the ‘Tour Dates’ tab.  “No upcoming dates.”  Damn!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Veil of Unreasonableness

 "Dreams" by Whisperfall

What's strange about dreams is the veil of unreasonableness that drifts in like a low lying fog.  I am speaking of those types of dreams resulting in the feeling that one has completely forgotten one's responsibility for something.  Mine often involved the idea that I am at U.S.C., have gone almost a full semester without, not only studying for a certain number of classes on my schedule, but not even having kept track of which classes I was still registered in.

The way this specific dream works is that I realize at some point, usually walking around campus, that, though I had gone to all of my scheduled classes maybe once or twice in the beginning of the semester, I have subsequently since skipped most of them and have several books and papers I should have read by now, and that the class is so far ahead of me by now that it's not even possible for me to catch up.  Not only that, but that during this lapse of time, I have squandered the weeks and months away, distracted by some other activities (not usually specified in the dream), and have only come to admit to myself that there are a whole series of lectures that I have neglected.

The thing about this, and why this anxiety dream is the perfect concoction for me, is that throughout my entire high school and university career, I seriously missed about five days total in those eight years, and most of them in high school due to my parents' insistence that I go with them to a family event or for some other reason.  I will add here that during my whole twelve years at Disney and two years at Dreamworks combined, I had taken two sick days and very few vacations.  My final check payoffs when I left the studios were great as a result.  The point is that I pretty much never missed work, never missed school, never missed a class period, and most certainly would never have lost the sense of my class schedule.  It just would never have happened with me.  And I never understood other kids in high school or adults at university who would miss a class here and there per their own choice.  It just wasn't in me to do that because of my pre-wired fear of falling behind.

So this nightmare I have of never having earned my Bachelor of Arts, or never having kept to my class syllabus, is about as far out for me and as anxiety producing is my sleeping little mind can create for itself.  And when I get to that point where I am desperately thinking about how I could catch up and read a few books and write a few papers in the remaining week and a half left of the U.S.C. semester, some part of me finally says, "This just isn't possible.  I couldn't have let this happen."  And then something (the veil of unreasonableness) lifts.  I usually come out of deeper sleep and realize that I graduated U.S.C. in the late 1988 and that, to my great relief, nothing was ever neglected other than a haircut or two and some fashion sense.

I got onto this track today because last night I started reading about a phenomenon called, The Uncanny Valley phenomenon, which explains that as something becomes more human looking, it begins to make us as humans uncomfortable because the object is almost human, but not quite right.  There is some evolutionary value to this, and it may lead to the reason why a lot of people are afraid of clowns.  And it probably finally explains why I personally don't like wax museums at all.  Those wax figures give me the creeps with their slightly askew faces and glassy eyes.  Brrrr! 

But from that article, I stared reading about dissociative disorders such as those where people believe someone they know has been made a duplicate or an impostor, called Capgras Syndrome.  There are several disorders like this, some involving a person, a place or a sense of time that has been replaced.  The going psychological theory is that the people with these disorders have alterations in their brains that still let them recognize physical attributes they are familiar with (a loved one's face, a location well known to them, a time of day), but their brains fail in being able to recognize the emotional component to those people or objects, resulting in a schism where a person feels that something looks right on the surface, but that there is something intuitively not right, or "off," with them, and they see the normally familiar person as an imposter in their their own body. 

So after reading all of this late last night (some light reading, huh?), I actually had one of my U.S.C. dreams, and it got me to thinking.  It's a somewhat loose connection between these various subjects, I realize, but it reminded me that the thin percentage of 'stuff' that helps one relate as a human being up in our front cortices really makes such a difference both in reality, and in our dreams.  Because in both circumstances a thin veil or unreasonableness sets in, but with dreams, it lifts away as one wakes up to let one know that they are fully connected back to reality.  Kind of a small but crucial transition that keeps us all human and reasonable. 

Now I'd better stop writing and check to make sure my university diploma is sitting in a drawer around here somewhere!

Monday, April 14, 2014


This past Saturday, I held a memorial for my mother, and for my father, both of whom recently passed away.  I really didn’t want to do it at first for a number of irrational reasons.  I thought about the amount of work that it would take to do it well was one of them.  I thought of the trouble it would cause all of the family and friends to fly or drive in for the memorial.  The other thing that I was hesitant about was writing and reading my own speech.  Where would I begin?  I just wasn’t sure how all of this would be accomplished or if anyone really wanted to.  Luckily, a friend of the family sat with me at lunch one day and made some suggestions.  I wrote a few down and ran off with them, in the next few days calling and researching how all of it would be done.

And as the weeks passed, and this and that got done, and as I discovered that along the way, I witnessed people stepping out to help, that it wasn’t so hard.  Just like writing my eulogy; a rough draft of what I wanted to say, then hammering it together in a few more writing sessions, the whole vision eventually came to fruition.  The perfect venue, the perfect preparations, and the perfect group of people.  And on the day of the memorial, when people I had not even thought of inviting had reached out to me to see if they could attend (of course they could), I was happy to see many of my cousins there, and my mom’s cousins, the Schneiders for example, who I hadn’t seen in years, and more extended family. 

The family friend who had sat with me at lunch, Carol, had said something that took a few days for me to digest.  It was a truth about our society’s life these days; that the only time there are large family gatherings are when something big happens.  A wedding, a funeral or memorial, a graduation to a lesser extent.  And as the weeks went on during the planning, it made me think of how important family gatherings are.  And how the memorial would be one of these.  And she was right, not only about the magnetism that an event like this has, but also as to what I think she suspected all along; that I would end up loving it.  And she was right. 

The day was a wonderful tribute to my parents and to their legacy as people who cared and watched out for their family and friends.  I enjoyed each and every speech that family and friends made, and I felt honored that they would all show up to pay tribute to my parents.  And so the closeness of the family continues into 2014.  I’m one of the lucky ones. 

And here now is the eulogy wrote and read for my parents:


I’d like to thank you all for coming today to this memorial for Marcia.  I know that looking back, the years go so fast.  At one moment, someone is so much a part of your life, and then in what seems to be just the next moment, they are gone.  And so when we gather together like this, it helps us to remember those who have left us as they were for so long in our lives; a constant presence as a friend, an aunt, a sister, a teacher, or a mother who most definitely shaped us and how we view the world. 

And so, I’d like to start by quoting a recent episode of the show, Parenthood, in which there was a family gathering at the dinner table and one of the siblings said, “Any reason for the family to get together is a good reason, no matter what it is.” 

At the time my dad passed away two and a half years ago, we had a lot going on with my mother, and there was no memorial for Bill.  So today, I will speak about both of them as they were to me; my parents. We’ve got a few people on the memorial program that would like to give a remembrance, followed by some written condolences, and then we’ll open the floor up to anyone who would like to say a few words.

Marcia made a great an impact in so many areas; from her unending commitment to children and their families who needed advocacy, to her devotion to her own family and friends. 

The way I remember her, from very early on, was as a mother who tried to help me understand myself and my world around me. She had as spectacular gift in being able to fully listen.  For instance, she would sit our little round breakfast nook table, eating her salad, while I might tell her of some current struggle.  And she would listen.  She often tried to have some sort of suggestion to give me a push off with at the end, which was always helpful.  But the important thing is that she was all-ears and all-heart when it came to being there for someone.  I hear so many people sadly talk about how their parents were either absent physically, or psychologically, and that their feelings were not taken seriously.  This was not the case with my mom.  She valued other people’s feelings and validated them, which helped a person move to the next step.  And I always felt that she cared.  Even after I moved out of the house to go to university, whenever I came home to visit, my mom always wanted a private catch-up session in her den to find out how I was doing.  My own in-house therapist.  Thank you mom!

Marcia was so psychologically minded that she always looked behind what was being said and done by people to better understand their behavior.  Motivations in people were a key factor to her.  This ability she had to understand what was going on behind the curtain so to speak and where to look, took a kind of mind that thoroughly empathized with the deep needs that people had from their own youth.  This helped me to realize that when people act in ways that are not necessarily their high water marks in life, there may be extenuating circumstances beyond what is obvious to the world that may be leading to their behavior.  In other words, she taught me compassion.  And it was the compassion she had throughout her life, for which all of us in this room loved her, and for which we found her irresistible.  We were magnetized to her in order to get the “Marcia” take on things.  Inevitably, it was often during a talk with her about some topic, which would realize some new nugget of insight, that one could walk away with and ponder for a few days, and could lead one to some self-resolution. 

But it wasn’t the political issue, or the latest news item, nor the latest trend that would really interest her.  What lit Marcia up was a discussion about something personal, something human, emotional, and problematic.  For this was my mom’s sweet spot of passion and this is where her genius would kick in. She had the ability to somehow hone in on the real issue underlying whatever problem one was discussing with her.  And that is a rare gift, and a very fortunate one for those around her. 

Marcia was of the opinion that one should find things out for oneself.  Now, I didn’t always appreciate this so much growing up, because I would have loved for someone to just give me all of the answers, from which I could pick and choose what seemed to be the best option from a stance ‘observation.’  But it was her insistence on the idea that one should learn by trial and error rather than cerebrally guessing at choices that gave me the sense that I had to discover things out on my own, and that the phenomenon of failure is absolutely an option and is to be expected along the path of finding one’s way.  This was completely in line with her Master’s Thesis, “Play as Adaptation,” in which she and her research partner, Ruth Pierce, put forth that active, hands-on, learning is the most useful experience in a human’s development.  Her theory that, the only way you will know if you like something is to try it, would help me discover music, art, running, and the pursuit of learning just for learning’s sake.

When I was interested, yet cautious, about doing something that would stretch my experience, my mom would motivate me, saying, “Find out how you can do it.  There is a way.”  She would say, “You’re a very good looking, energetic young man, so just right off the bat you have a lot on your side.  Just find out who you have to talk to to get in.”  She knew to remind me to use my strengths in my life, which has been helpful ammunition for me to carry with me.  Her view of the world was one of expansion and self-awareness, and about broadening one’s self, and that the discovery of introspection will always lead to growth. 

I was very fortunate to have a mother who was also a child development specialist.  And her work with other children never interfered with our relationship.  For a child who from his very early life experience was sensitive to feeling “left out,” an adoptive mother who was giving a lot of attention to other children could have caused some problems of confidence, and yet, she navigated this expertly.  She constantly talked about various children’s cases she worked on at McLaren Hall and other facilities with the utmost passion and dedication, and yet, she always somehow made me feel that I was her prize.  And I was always deeply touched by how much she loved all of her nieces and nephews, and all of their children. 

In 1984, when I decided to completely dedicate myself to finding my natural sister, a situation that could have been awkward for many adoptive parents, my mom and dad were supportive of my efforts and regularly asked me how my search was going.  And after six months when I found my sister, my parents were proud of me and were excited to meet her.  I am very thankful to them for that.  They were selfless in this. 

And my dad, Bill.  He was such a fun dad to have!  Every time I’d walk into the house, he’d greet me with, “Well, hello Fred,” as if I had shown up to some convention he hadn’t expected to see me at.  He was always curious about everything, and I think that when he adopted me, he started to see things through a child’s eyes.  I remember him squatting down with me at the Museum of Natural in New York, as we were looking at a monstrous blue whale that was suspended from the museum ceiling, and appreciating how it must have appeared to me from the point of view of a small five year old boy.  He had an interest in how things worked; puzzles, gadgets, and other quizzical dilemmas, which later grew into an interest in past societies.  He said that when we all went for a week-long trip with my elementary school to see dinosaur remains in Arizona, something got sparked in him with regard to a sudden interest in paleontology and archeology.  He always loved that this interest in him arose so incidentally.

Do you know that when my dad was a boy in New York, his dad, who was a doctor, would say the most outrageously scientific sounding things to him.  For instance, if my dad skinned his knee and his father was putting ointment on the wound, my dad would invariably ask what it was he was applying, and his dad would say, “Well son, this is Compound Refrigerated Fluid Extract of Effervescent Ecoromaboli.”  I’m afraid my dad was doomed to be curious about everything after that.

Having this engineer, journalist, archeologist father was beneficial to me in that if we started talking about pretty much any topic, instantly there were a couple of encyclopedia volumes and a map splayed out on the family room table so that we could research together the facts and locations of where all of this had occurred. Though we didn’t travel together at all out of the United States, my dad and I went around the world many times over with his atlases and his descriptions of other cultures.  I literally can't look at a city-grid, or an abandoned structure, without intuitively sensing where the railway ‘right-of-ways’ were, or wanting to know what the structure’s earlier usages were.  Thank you dad!

And as for the sweet part of my dad, when he felt emotional, he would tell me.  Weather it was a story in the paper that he saved for me about some extraordinary situation, or a movie he had seen that made him tear up, he would say, “Fred, you have to see this!”  He often told me that his favorite moment in a movie was in the 1946 film, “Stairway to Heaven”, in which David Niven, in order to cheat death, goes up to heaven to argue his case before a heavenly court.  When Niven arrives in heaven, he sees a hound sitting nearby, and he says, “I always HOPED there would be dogs (up here).”  If that’s the case, then I know my dad is on a heavenly beach somewhere throwing tennis balls for Willie to chase into the ocean surf, and I know that my uncle Jeff Herrman is also riding cousin K.C.’s mini-bike into that same ocean surf.  That actually happened, by the way.  

Bill made the sweet part of himself accessible to me, and I appreciated this in him, for I haven’t come across a lot of fathers who were like this with their sons.  His love for me was very strong, and I always felt it.  I’m sure that people in our midst must have felt like he talked about and doted on me WAY too much.  My ears were always burning, and I didn’t mind it at all! 

I have one regret of my own regarding my father.  During the time that I was working at Disney Feature Animation, he was always trying to get me to do a docent tour of the old historical buildings in downtown Los Angeles.  I won’t bother telling you about the extraordinary pressures of being in crunch time on various feature productions, but the result was that I never found a good moment to accept his invitation.  And for that I am sad; I would love to have done that tour with him.  But it’s just one of those things that I will remember as to how similar we were in our interests and curiosities. 

I was just extraordinarily fortunate to be given the gift of these two people. 

My first realization of how strongly I bonded with Marcia and Bill was during the time just before my adoption.  As many of you know, Marcia had been my nursery school teacher when my natural father died, and then she and Bill decided to adopt me.  During what would seem to me to be a somewhat lengthy battle between the Herrman’s and a social worker who wanted to adopt me as well, I was enrolled in an elementary school on Crescent Heights Boulevard due of it’s proximity to the social worker’s home, where I was to stay during the weekdays.  With all due respect to the social worker, and trust me, she is due a lot of respect for what she had previously done for my natural father and I, I remember how much I didn’t like living with this social worker, and inversely, how much I enjoyed being with Marcia and Bill when I would visit them on the weekends at their Crestview Drive home during this temporary arrangement. 

One school day during recess, I was standing in an elevated portion of the school playground, which overlooked directly onto a small residential street, when Marcia and Bill drove by in their blue convertible Fiat Spider, with the top down.  I suppose they had been curious to see the school was that I was attending during the weekdays.  They stopped, looked up and saw that I was standing on the other side of the fence above them, and they waved at me.  I waved back at them listlessly, and then, they drove away.

I remember how desperately I wanted to be with Marcia and Bill in that moment.  I was in love with them, and I wanted to drive off with Marcia and Bill in that little Fiat to go exploring the city together.  And as you know, in short enough time, my wish came true.  I gained two parents who loved me, plus an aunt Lane and uncle Jack, an aunt Isabel and Uncle Roger, and an aunt Mary and Uncle Jeff, each of whom have very strong families with some of the most interesting, motivated, and respectable people I’ve ever met. 

The funny thing is that occasionally throughout my relationship with my parents, I used to tell them how thankful I was that they adopted me.  It may sound corny, but I really did.  I would just blurt it out, “Thank you for adopting me!” In return, my parents would say how much I invigorated their lives; that when I became their son, I brought a whole new dimension into their marriage.  I’d say, “Yes, but you SAVED MY life!,” and then they’d always give a laugh and an, “Oh well, we all came out the better!” 

But I don’t think they ever really got it; that they had such an impact on one particular child’s life, the trajectory of his future, the richness and fullness of acquiring knowledge and the everlasting sense that one always has options, in being given the gift of a family full of love, being shown what a good friend is and in my being able to seek out my own true friends that would last a lifetime.  My experience and my parents’ experience in that way don’t seem comparable.  I intuitively know that I experienced the greater impact in the whole transaction. And I don’t really know if anyone can understand it like I do since I lived it first hand.  But I have my mom and dad to thank for all of that.

And so the last six? seven? eight? years have been very tough for me and for all of us who loved them.  To see two smart, vibrant, complicated people who used to travel the world, work hard, and indulge their respective passions and hobbies, and to then at first slowly, and then rather quickly lose their faculties.  It was a hard thing to see because the rapid declines they experienced seemed so unlikely happen to such smart and worldly people.  But they did, and being there with them, and for them, was the best that I or anyone else could do, because that’s what they would have liked.  They wouldn’t have wanted to be alone through it all, and they weren’t, thanks to a lot of you’re here today, especially Carol Cole.

And lastly, a couple of special moments with my mom. 

One time, back when Marcia was my teacher at the nursery school and I was four and a half years old, I remember that it was raining, and I was looking out the classroom window, gazing at how everything was getting wet outside.  She came over to me, knelt down, put her hand gently on my back and asked me how I liked the rain.  I didn’t answer because I didn’t talk much in those days, but rather, just kept looking out. It was a quiet, private moment for both of us. 

Then recently in 2013, I was visiting her small assisted living home in Westwood while all of the other residents were out on a field trip.  Marcia was in one of her uplifted moods, and she and I were sitting on the front room couch looking out of the window together.  It was windy outside and it reminded me of that day forty-four years earlier, another quiet moment together and watching nature do it’s thing.  And as she looked out of the large living room window, she reacted to the wind exclaiming, “My goodness!”  I said, “Yes mom, it’s very windy today, isn’t it?”  And she said with wonderment, “It sure is.” 

And I looked at her and thought to myself, “What a sweet women you are.”

Thank you mom and dad for everything you did for all of us who knew and loved you.  I will miss you both forever.

-And now, cousin Jeff Golden would like to say a few words...


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Marcia K. Herrman - 1927-2014

My mother passed away tonight peacefully after a multi-year struggle with dementia at the age of eighty-six.  She was a wonderful and caring woman who did a tremendous amount of good for the child development profession, lived for her family, and changed other people's lives, including adopting a son named Fred and giving him love, opportunity, and someone he could always trust.  She is in a better place now, and I will forever miss her.  I love you mom.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Rolling Over Los Angeles

As I was driving down the 405 today, I noted the extent of work that they are doing with widening the Sepulveda pass freeway and how much congestion there typically is.  It took a good 15 minutes longer in my estimation to get over the hill and back than it should have, and it’s been that way for months.  It’s always a lot of fun, right?  Braking, starting, stopping, going, a driver decides to shoot into your lane in front of you thinking he’s going to get ahead of things.  It’s just very busy these days on our roads.

I have seen archival photos of the Sepulveda pass being cut through the hillside, and also photos of the freeway newly opened with just a few cars passing through.  And, not to linger in the past, but it gets me thinking from time to time how incredibly beautiful the greater city of Los Angeles likely was back in the day when the Arroyo Seco Parkway was the only real highway in the area, and when one could drive at a speed that allowed viewing of the surrounding mountains and areas without having to have laser-like focus of what’s in front of one to not miss that nanosecond when a collision could occur.  It’s exciting to have a vibrant, thriving, and most often, chaotic city, and I think I were living in a quiet town in the mid west I would miss the variety of options there are for activities and meeting different people.  And yet, from a pure transportation point of view, it sure would be nice to be able to gander at the rolling hills and the open vistas from parts of the city such as if there were just a few people on the roads at any point in time. 

I remember that I got lucky one Saturday about ten years ago.  I was driving eastbound on the Santa Monica Freeway (Interstate 10) just around the Washington and La Cienega overpasses, and for some reason at about 10:30am that morning there was almost nobody in any of the lanes in my vicinity.  It had rained just the night before and the sun was peeking in and out of the puffy clouds rolling low over the L.A. area, and the wind had swept out all of the smog making for an extremely crisp, clear day.  The city had a rather blue tint to it, such as that of a cold mountain environment.  This weather gave me the opportunity to look around side to side in my car and fully appreciate all of the folds and variants in the landscape around me for a good ten miles.  

I could see the different levels on which the houses sat radiating out towards Beverly Hills and Hollywood as I looked northward out of my driver’s side window.  And as I looked out of the passenger side, Baldwin Hills seemed to be sitting just off of the freeway by a few feet.  I could also see the buildings on Wilshire’s Miracle Mile standing at attention in a sea of busy, swirling neighborhoods street alignments that hugged the uneven topography. The Santa Monica Mountains (and it’s subsection of the Hollywood Hills) aren’t the only hills in the Los Angeles basin, though they often seem so because they are so obviously perched between the city side and the valley side.  With the clarity that I had that morning, it was more akin to being in a low flying helicopter and having a three dimensional perspective of the land at differing depths as I moved eastward. 

Those few moments have lasted a long time for me.  It may sound silly, but they have gotten me through the frustration of being on the Hollywood Freeway northbound and being clogged in the Highland/Hollywood Bowl traffic of the Cahuenga pass, or of being on the 405 northbound and just sitting stuck around Sunset Blvd.  During those moments, several things come to mind.  

I think of pretty much anyone who is visiting our town from out of state and wondering, “How in hell could anyone put up with this kind of congestion and overpopulation all of the time.”  And I’ve also heard, “People are so caught up in their own world and guarded out here in L.A.  It’s all about who you know and the business.” I have a deeply empathetic understanding of that viewpoint having been born here and knowing how the culture has changed.  However, because of that experience I had that ten or so years ago, I am able to often get myself past the temporary discomfort of the traffic and the craziness that happens in some places and say to myself, “Yeah, but do you know what and interesting and diverse city I live in?  There are so many people from different parts of the world here, and there are so many different types of terrain in just a few square miles.”  I realize I sound jingoistic on a state level, but California really is an amazing state in it’s resources and in it’s people. 

You could buy a house up in the hills and be nestled in a quiet, hard to discover neighborhood.  Or you could live at the beach and take strolls on the boardwalks of southern California beaches, or you could live in the desert or the mountains within an hour of the city.  The best thing for me is that since I love diversity in the things that I do, it’s all here for me.  On one Saturday, my girlfriend and I could look for starfish in a Malibu lagoon, or we could go for a hike in one of the myriad of the hill trails that are around the city, or drive to the snow or to the desert.  And the real point is, if we got up early enough, we could easily do those four things in one day AND see a movie or watch one being filmed.  One of my favorite things is forgetting that I am not that far away from the city when hiking around the L.A. area. 

So, the next time I’m stuck in traffic, which undoubtedly will be tomorrow, I will again think to myself of the time I got that perspective of Los Angeles in a way I hadn’t before.  Perhaps someday I’ll take a ride in an actual helicopter and fly around the southland to get the kind of view I’ve been imagining is out there.  That would be a lot of fun and very informative as to the relation of parts of town to each other.  I am certain that I always shorten the distance between the valley and the city in my mind, but that flying over it would really show how much earth separates the two metropolitan areas. But if I were to go up in a helicopter, it would have to be a professional pilot with many hours of flying experience.  I wouldn’t go up in a helicopter with Pee Wee Herman for instance.  I just think he would be too distracted a pilot.