family, growing up, music

The Bakers’ House

From the mid-1960s on, Joan and Nelson were my parents’ friends, and their kids, Mark, Allison and Betsy were friends with me and my sisters. I loved visiting them at their home (they almost never came over to ours) – and I loved their dogs, Mitzi and Thurber.

Special stuff was always going on “Chez Bakers” – theatrical hijinks, of course, since, like my folks, Joan & Nelson loved performing, producing, directing – but also music and art, books and politics and lots and lots of talk. I’m sure they had their challenges but the Bakers were such upbeat people, involved and animated and good humored. They were open to new ideas and inspired my parents to stretch a little, too; Nelson drove an Austin Healy bugeye Sprite, energizing my mother’s appetite for imported sports cars, and Joan’s fashion flair encouraged us all to wear clothes that were a little different (I once remade a thrift store fur coat into a very warm skirt!)

They’d open their dining room and invite friends to set up drums and come over with instruments to make music together. There was always a new project they were working on, thinking about, planning to do. While their lawn was never pristine, and I do recall visiting their cellar and seeing the same unfinished repair project on the workbench that I’d spied 6 months earlier – the Bakers always managed to take care of the important stuff, and I felt accepted, heard and noticed when we were there.

The summer of 1971, they were all going to be away and asked me if I’d be willing to stay over, water the plants and look after the dogs for a few days; ooh, I jumped at the chance! To be by myself, away from the noisy chaos of my own family, alone in their quiet house with the piano and tape recorder for a few days? Heaven!

(Actually, I did get a little lonely and was relieved when my dad and sisters dropped in one afternoon and took me to McDonald’s over on the Berlin Turnpike. Otherwise, it was a perfect staycation!)

One of my very favorite memories is the time when Nelson and my dad spontaneously broke into a performance of SONNY BOY – with Nelson’s Irish tenor ringing out so sweet and tender, as my dad gave voice to the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy smart aleck responses. Without any rehearsal at all, it sounded pretty much just like this:

“For who right where on what?” I still laugh at how much fun it was.

family, growing up, politics, religion, Responsibility, self-acceptance

Terra Mater

C’mere, you big beautiful planet!!

I had a thought this morning when I couldn’t get back to sleep after waking too early – about Mother Nature’s intentions for our home, planet earth. I think she’s programmed us all to “be fruitful and multiply”, i.e. for everything that grows, flora as well as fauna, to KEEP growing and REPRODUCE for the continuation of Life. I see this every morning in my backyard; the lemon tree enjoys monsoon rains, greening up more and more every day, while the mourning doves cuddle together in their nest, and spiders spin webs, geckos race across the side of the house… Mother Nature DIGS monsoon-time in a big way!

Fair enough.

And perhaps our patriarchal society conspires to compel that by attempting to control women and FORCE them to be mothers or at least baby incubators. I think this is the belief behind the recent SCOTUS decision to rescind Roe V. Wade and criminalize/outlaw choice. 

Whether this is rationalized as “a divine mandate from God” or anything else, the bottom line is that Mother Nature is calling the shots. She decrees: Human beings are supposed to make babies, period. Everything else is nonsense and poppycock.

In grammar school I’d learned how the parasitic embryo took whatever it needed from the mother’s body; calcium from her bones and teeth, every other nutrient from her glands, muscle, blood… basically laying waste to the “host” for its own survival. I knew very young that I didn’t want any part of that! That was just yucky. Yet, in younger years, in spite of my conscious desire to remain barren, my hormones kept telling me to have sex, to get pregnant. I knew from an early age that giving birth was not something I ever wanted to do. Aside from the financial and emotional considerations, abortion was illegal so I chose to take every precaution to avoid popping out any “Mini Me”s.

Viewed in a certain light, using birth control appears to be an affront to Mother Nature’s insistent edict, and getting a tubal ligation or vasectomy is the ultimate insult; the biggest, loudest way to say “NO!” that exists. Both procedures involve surgery – cutting into the body, which is pretty drastic.

It might be different if society actually liked women. If collectively we supported and honored mothers truly – not just paying lip service on Mother’s Day, but holding them consistently in high regard. If women were genuinely accepted as essential to humanity. If women weren’t treated as 2nd-class, but true equals, with their own unquestioned autonomy universally respected and cherished.

It might be different if we treated Mother Earth with respect, instead of laying waste to her ecology, drilling for oil and mining for minerals; despoiling the landscape and the air and the water; polluting the food chain, creating toxic chemicals, climate changes… for what? So a few rich folks can get richer?

42 years ago I staged my own little “sit-in” with my lady parts. I’m still chewing on this, aware that I’m at odds with Mother Nature and disjunct in a way inside my own body = disembodied by my choice. The way I see it now is the same as how I saw it then; it was my only chance at survival.


Mrs. Jinks

I’m resigned to the fact that I will never be spiritually enlightened; I’m pretty sure that involves embracing all of creation with love. But like Mr. Jinks, I draw the line at rodents, and especially “meeces”.

I hate meeces to pieces!

A couple days ago I noticed a small amount of coffee grinds on a pantry shelf – and then the next day there were MORE coffee grinds, and I wondered, “might a mouse have invaded our home after the last monsoon deluge that flooded the backyard for an hour or so?” Alas, that was the case! And BOY, did she make a mess!

I say “she” because while we’ve had “mus musculus” breaches in the past, I’ve never before seen such incredible hoarding of foodstuffs. As I began to clean up, peeking into every corner on every shelf and finding more and more stuff stashed all over, she jumped out at me! Really got the old adrenalin pumping! BOY, was she fast!

I think she was “expecting”. We had most of our bagged foods in plastic boxes but nothing deterred her from stockpiling HUGE amounts! And she got into EVERYTHING! Coffee! Hibiscus tea! Almonds! Pistachios! Atkins peanut butter cups!

What she couldn’t chew into (jars of artichoke hearts, canned green chilis, worcestershire sauce), she soiled on, EVERYWHERE! If anyone needs inspiration to declutter and recycle unused kitchen appliances, extra place settings or anything else they’ve been storing in their pantry, I’d advise them to invite a pregnant mouse over for a few days; they’ll wind up needing to clean EVERYTHING and probably feel much more ready to part with those items they rarely use!

All creatures great and small – yes, perhaps God DID make them all. But meeces who invite themselves to be houseguests will be meeting their Maker sooner rather than later – dispatched to Mouse Heaven in short order!

“Who, me?” Yes, YOU!!
music biz, growing up, Jingles

My Married Man

It started out slowly and evolved as most torrid affairs do – into promises of everything you’ve ever dreamed of; connection, love, creative fulfillment, riches, recognition, inclusion and belonging.

“Beethoven” played synthesizer in a jazz band where I’d become the copyist in the mid-1970s and I soon became HIS copyist, as his reputation grew as a freelance arranger.

In the beginning, it was a pretty straightforward client-supplier relationship – he’d call, I’d go pick up the scores, run home to extract the parts and then deliver them to the studio – always last-minute. There was built in drama to the timing – will we be ready? can I get there on time? I always did, but there were some really close calls, when he’d still be writing the 2nd chart in the cab on the way to the studio while I was copying parts to the 1st chart so the musicians would have something to play at the start of the session.

He got plenty of work for pop and disco records as well as music for advertising. New to jingles, I was a little surprised and delighted to discover residual payments; after the initial TV and radio cycle, often ad agencies would continue the campaign using the same music, resulting in another payment for the musicians. When you’re self-employed, “money for nothing” gets your attention!

And then there were magic moments; when the musicians would yell out, “hey, Marilyn’s here! NOW we can get this party started!”, or the guitarist would hold my waist to steady me as I squeezed by the microphones to put parts on the music stands, or when the drummer and bassist would start dancing while listening to the playback. It was great to see pretty much the same fantastically musical guys pretty much every weekday, and watch them switch seamlessly from country tracks in the morning to funk grooves in the afternoon – their musical prowess was spectacular!

“Beethoven” was always the picture of casual elegance with his velvet blazer, tailored jeans, gold Dunhill cigarette lighter. He could “pass” in the business world but had bohemian proclivities; one time I came by to prepare music and found him preparing illegal substances and singing,🎶 “this is the way we chop our coke, chop our coke, chop our coke…” 🎶 Drugs added to the mystique, plus I think he grew to rely on them as much as his chain-smoking and alcohol consumption.

It seemed that he never turned down work, and got to a point where he needed help finishing scores; at first only horn parts, or a string voicing, or vocal harmonies, which I was more than happy to do. It was thrilling to hear what I’d written being brought to life by NYC’s best talent in the best studios. And he’d tell me to add $50 or $75 to my copying invoice. I could use the extra money and heck, we all want to be indispensable. Plus it was dramatic to see him “miraculously” save a session, to notice how impressed the clients were with the results, and to know that behind the scenes, I’d helped contribute to the magic.

What do you give the man who has everything? When his birthday came up, I wanted to get him a suitable gift – it was the only time I’ve ever shopped at Tiffany’s.

Over 4+ years, “Beethoven” was never my only client, but he was the most important one for quite a while. I’d check with him about what was on the schedule before accepting other gigs and I never left town if there was a chance he’d need my services. I was constantly reassured that I was an essential and irreplaceable “part of the team” that sustained his professional success. And that was easy to believe since I bailed him out time and again as he “bit off more than he could chew” work-wise.

Promises were made. While I knew I would never have the keyboard chops he had and I certainly never expected to be asked to play, I was a good sight-singer with choir and studio experience and the ability to blend in vocal groups, and I became frustrated that I was only rarely allowed to sing on sessions (potentially much more lucrative than copying or arranging music). It was confusing when what he’d promised didn’t match up with what went down, and I kept being disappointed when his actions didn’t match his words – much like the married man Carrie Fisher is hung up on at the start of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. “Will he ever leave his wife?” Umm… no. At a certain point, I realized I was living a cliché.

Fortunately the stars aligned and a few things happened to secure my freedom; I’d taken a film scoring summer course at Eastman, and in my absence, “Beethoven” had found someone else to ghostwrite for him. Simultaneously I had an epiphany where I realized that if I didn’t stop working for him, I would hurt myself so that I wouldn’t be able to work for anybody. I had no idea how this would happen – I might get hit by a bus, or fall down and break my arm. I just knew it viscerally, and unlike so many other messages from my gut, for once, I believed it.

The kicker was when he called me again for a last-minute gig after I’d returned from Rochester. I rushed over to his apartment, but it turned out to be a false alarm – his wife told me that the session had been cancelled. Then she added 5 words that totally broke the spell: “You’re married to him, too”.

Whatever else I may have been clueless about, I knew for sure that THAT was not the case!

I hadn’t thought about him in a very long time but recently learned that “Beethoven” died a couple years ago; one of the earliest victims of COVID. And it stirred up a lot of feelings. At first I thought, “oh, gee! What a shame he’s gone.” But after only a short while, as the memories flooded back… hmm. Maybe not such a loss after all.

music biz, Jingles


I began trying to get into the jingle business in the mid 1970s; making the rounds of Madison Avenue ad agencies and music production companies, large and small. My demo reel was pretty thin but I was diligent about calling back “next week” and trying to get a meeting with whoever called the shots. Most of them were “too busy” to actually meet with me, so I’d drop off my reel and business card at their office and follow up by “calling back next week” to remind them to listen and get their reaction.

They generally told me to get lost, but a few one-man jingle shops were more receptive – Stan Applebaum, Louise Messina, Marc Brown – or maybe it was just a slow day and they were bored. I actually got in to see some more than once, and would call every time I’d updated my demo. When I asked Norm Richards how he got business from agencies, he told me he treated the ad guys to lavish lunches – maybe he was hinting that he himself was hungry? Whatever – it was something I sure couldn’t afford to do.

A decade later, after our first foray to Los Angeles, we’d bounced back to Chicago and were frantically making sales calls to Michigan Avenue agencies. We’d been leaving messages for the Head of Production at N.W. Ayer-Chicago every other day for weeks. Finally he took our call and agreed to let us take him out to lunch. We could hardly wait for him to hear our new jingle reel! “Friday,” he said. “Let’s try that new Italian place on E. Huron – Avanzare, I think it’s called.”

“Sure!” We were really excited; this was a super elegant 4-star cloth-napkin-upscale-everyone-wants-to-go-to place that we’d read glowing reviews in the trades and heard all the ad folks buzzing about.

We got there early to suss out the menu; everything sounded delicious, came ala carte and was quite pricey – no Businessman’s Lunch here!

But no worries – this guy was the Head of Production! He could throw a lot of work our way! What’s an expensive lunch in the grand scheme of things?

He arrived a few minutes late, apologized for his tardiness and immediately ordered a dry martini. Then appetizers. Another martini. Then soup. Then the most expensive entree. And wine.

Then he told us this was his “farewell lunch”, as today was his last day at N.W.Ayer, and he was retiring from advertising.

At least he didn’t order dessert.

= “push forward” in English
family, growing up, Home


“I’ve been sweet and I’ve been good 🎵 I’ve had a whole full day of motherhood 🎵 But I’m gonna have an Aviance night!”

I didn’t need to see this commercial in 1977 to know that motherhood was something I wanted to avoid at all costs. My mom had profound ambivalence about being a parent, which she shared openly with her girls while we were growing up, and we harbored few romantic illusions about “the pitter-patter of little feet.” Raising kids was hard work!

My mother hated the overtly commercial nature and artificiality of Mother’s Day. She’d accept flowers and chocolate any day of the year – but greeting cards on Mother’s Day? No way! One year I sent her a card intended for a NON-mother, and it made her laugh – which was my intention. (I loved to make her laugh!)

I don’t recall her ever complaining about how “pregnancy had destroyed” her figure, as other women have been known to do; in fact, she said she liked how nursing babies filled out her bosom. She wasn’t crazy about housework (who is??), and once she allowed herself to spend the money, really loved going out for meals instead of cooking at home. And treating you! She was generous like that – and lots of other ways.

However, she had mixed feelings about possessions, including furniture. For the longest time she didn’t have any. This worked almost as an anti-welcome mat, except that she had friends and family stay over frequently. Still, I remember visiting her in San Francisco where the only place to sit (besides the FLOOR!?) was the toilet! She had sewn up some multi-colored pillows for the hardwood floor and that night I slept on Chiclets!

not the most comfortable bedding!

When her older sister came for a visit in NYC, my mother finally broke down and bought a couple of captain’s beds, a table and 2 chairs – “they’re for Helen!” she said. But she kept them after that, so maybe they were for other guests, too?

The incongruity of her resistance to motherhood is that she was actually quite gifted at the most important parts of being a mother; she liked to teach us, to share her enthusiasms (art, music, theater, fashion, movies, other people’s cooking, etc.) She followed her interests and tried new things – she wasn’t fearless but she did it anyway. And she could be extraordinarily affectionate and playful; sometimes she’d hug you and refuse to let go, until it got silly and you both collapsed in laughter! And then she’d grab and hug you again!

NOT letting you go!!

Among my loved ones, she was “the one that got away” – the person I most wanted to impress, whose attention was most elusive and thus most precious. In a way, I never stopped being her baby; looking for her approval, desperately wanting her to be happy. I think she always wanted to be wanted – and she was!

the center of baby’s world!
more than she ever knew!
Please, please, please love me too, Mamala!
excellence, growing up, learning, music biz, politics, Responsibility

Rabbis, Gurus & Mentors, Oh My!

Papa liked to play the ponies!

In the late 1980s my dad had a friend he called “the rabbi” – a man at the track who provided counsel on which horse to bet on and why. And Maharishi Mahesh Yogi inspired a generation to embrace Transcendental Meditation when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and many others joined him in India 20 years earlier. While John Lennon later claimed that the Giggling Guru was a fraud, the impulse to Follow The Leader seems to be hardwired into human beings.

Giggling Guru & The Beatles

Anyone who visits my website meets my mentor Hale Smith; I could say that “he made me who I am today”, and while that’s not entirely accurate, he certainly had a profound influence for which I’m eternally grateful. 12-Step groups tell newcomers, “find someone who has what you want and ask how they got it” – and when I saw the career Hale had built for himself, I was in his face, demanding as much of his time and attention as I could get! Fortunately he had boundaries (and plenty of other students!), but I could see that Hale was the best, so being “like Mike” was my top priority!

I invested a lot in my relationship with Hale, but I didn’t feel entitled to his help and I never held him responsible when there were disappointments. I also didn’t go so far as to take up his habit of cigar smoking!

Which brings me to today’s subject: whose job is it to ensure employees are fulfilled in their jobs? When I read this article in today’s news, I started to wonder!?!

As a rule, I’m not a fan of essentially-one-chord songs, so I didn’t pay much attention to THIS one when it first came out. But it came to mind when learning of staff leaving the White House in droves because “we’re doing a lot of work but we’re not decision-makers and there’s no real path towards becoming decision-makers”. Ummm…. excuse my ignorance, but since when did it become management’s job to provide advancement?

The Declaration of Independence promises “the pursuit of Happiness” – but no guarantees! In truth, none of us are actually entitled to much of anything and the sooner we learn that, the better. Like so much else in life, career progress is self-propelled. It has to be a priority to the extent that one keeps working at getting around, over, under and through every obstacle. In my experience this takes energy, focus and steely determination.

To paraphrase John Houseman’s iconic ad for Smith Barney, “Happiness doesn’t grow on trees or march up and bite you on the behind… you have to EARN it!”

excellence, family, growing up, music biz

A Major Award!

OH, yeah!!

I’m not much of a prize-winner – (one reason I don’t play the Lotto!)  Ten years ago I won a couple Toastmasters ribbons for fairly coherent Table Talks. And I won a trophy for Safety Patrol service in the 6th grade – essentially for good attendance, not because I’d saved anyone’s life or anything like that. The next year my older sister took home practically every award and prize given by the school when she graduated from 8th grade. Meanwhile I slumped into ignominy in junior high, receiving my first of several troublesome report cards. My dad was very nice about it – he even defended me to the teachers, but it was obvious I’d never be the superstar student my older sister was.

Competition was a fact of life in the Harris household – for applause from the outside world and for attention within our family. But at the same time that the quest for the spotlight was expected, it was also sometimes shamed and ridiculed. I grew up feeling somewhat ambivalent about such recognition, as it could invite jealousy and sneering contempt. 

Still, it’s gratifying to be acknowledged for our accomplishments; high school diplomas, college sheepskins, gold records, acknowledgement for one’s work being chosen in competition. Tokens of friendship, mementos of belonging.

not quite an Oscar…

It’s even become Big Business! Win or lose, these days kids get participation trophies for just showing up! 

no, we are NOT all “the best!”

When we got married, my husband had several boxes of awards he’d won on graduating from high school. The John Philip Sousa trophy. Outstanding Musician plaque. Awards for conducting, prizes for arranging, medals for performing, assisting, leading the section….   I honestly couldn’t believe how many there were – WAY more than the haul my older sis had!!

(And over the years I’ve learned how deserved they all were – how Mark had EARNED these awards and lived up to his potential – no, surpassed the expectations of his teachers.)  

I was overwhelmed, and once again felt horribly inadequate. I told him they had to go, that our midtown Manhattan apartment was too small to keep them, even tucked away in a closet.

Truth is, I was envious. I had never had my talents publicly acknowledged like that. I wanted those trophies GONE.

So we took photos of them and threw them in the trash.

Not my proudest moment. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t make that demand today.

THE “major award” from A CHRISTMAS STORY
learning, music

Lemons In May

I am confused. I know very little about global climate change, but… lemons in May?? Somehow that seems a bit off-the-charts. Granted, these lemons are still pretty small and far from ripe – but in the 17+ years we’ve lived here, they’ve never appeared before autumn!

I’ve been a bit overwhelmed of late; the world looks less inviting on a number of fronts, and even the bees in the backyard seem to be giving me the stink-eye. I want to stay out of everybody else’s way, including the bees.

But look – apparently there are TWO seasons for lemon harvesting in Arizona!

Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony came on the car radio while I was running errands a few days ago and I felt like when I first heard it as a teenager, as it crashed over me like a tidal wave. Even though I was a music major, in all this time I’ve never made the effort to study the score to analyze why and how it had that effect – I just let myself get carried along for the ride. Perhaps it’s time to examine that score now.

learning, music biz

Winkin’ Back

Last night I heard a lush, lovely recording on KJZZ by British singer Claire Martin; PURE IMAGINATION. Arranger Callum Au’s opening notes took my breath away, and though I haven’t been in communication with her for well over a decade, I visited Claire’s website and told her thru her portal how genuinely thrilled I was to hear her sounding so wonderful, and that even though her album SONGS & STORIES was released 2 years ago, it’s still getting radio airplay in the States.

Claire responded to me this morning: “You’ve made my day just when I was sure the world had gone mad.” And I agree; the world HAS gone mad, and I’ve felt overwhelmed and helpless in the face of the cruelty, hate, rage and violence of late. Long ago I marched in protest of wars, the attack on our earthly ecology, human rights, etc. but those days are long gone. Instead of believing that such efforts create change, I’ve learned from many attempts that my impact is limited to my own personal challenges, and I honestly don’t have that much of a handle on even those right now.

But my dad had a saying: “when I wink, I wanna see something winkin’ back” – and I know that I can do that, at least.

So I make an effort to let someone know that their music touches my heart, that their joke makes me laugh, that their writing resonates with me. I can wink back. It may not be much, but I believe it can make a difference.