Chapter 9 - Living Under the Hollywood Sign
Time Warner Rising
While we were pondering how to separate POV from Phillips Media that fall I got a call from a head hunter. He was trying to find a new creative head for Time Warner Interactive. This interactive division of Warner Bros. Studio had a horrible reputation, but they were partnered with Warner Bros Music, the one record label I had always wanted to record with. This would be a big step in terms of the size of the organization. Philips Media was big, but we were really a smaller production group within a big corporation and I didn’t have to be involved with the senior execs too much. Time Warner at that point owned everything. A movie studio, successful record labels, comic book companies etc.
Having been an artist and a producer all these years pitching to big media companies, I wondered what it would feel like to sit on the other side of the desk. I wondered if I had the chops to play in the big corporate arena with all its positives and negatives. David Todd and I talked about it, and if it was possible that POV could become a external production group at Time Warner with me running the division, that would be another way to extract ourselves from Philips.
I took a series of meetings with executives, marketing types, promotion folks, and bean counters. One of the big positives was Ralph Giuffre, the head of marketing for TWI. He and I really hit it off. I liked the current CEO, who was only supposed to stay through the transition, but when I really looked at the current state of the unit it was a real mess. It would take me a year just to dig out from all the stupid deals they had made. However, they kept enticing me (it was a lot of money) and agreed to the changes I wanted to make, so in the end I accepted.
In August, between my leaving Philips POV and starting at Time Warner I had this idea that it would be interesting to return to Twain Harte, the scene of some of our family vacations. I always loved the town for the lake, the miniature golf course and the outside movie theater. I wanted to see if it had changed much. Here are some images of our family time there. Black and white from the 50’s. That’s me on the paddle board out on the lake.
And full living color in the 90’s…. I rented the house. Mother, Bruce, Virginia, their boys and Jane and Bill came for visits. Lena also joined us for part of the time.
I remember at one point swimming out to one of the rafts in the middle of the lake and just lying back looking at the sky. To be back in this place after so many years and yet still have some things the same, was truly a mystery of how the universe moves sometimes.
David Todd and his team were left to finish the coding on Thunder in Paradise. At the same time, the Interactive Academy Awards announced the nominees for its 1994 awards. They were going to be given out on the TNT cable TV network. It was a bit weird for me having just left POV, but Phillips agreed to let me represent our titles at the awards. It was a big night for us. Voyeur won seven interactive academy awards including my personal ones - best interactive movie (design), and best drama. (story) Boxing also won the Interactive Academy Award - for best Sports Title.
You know that fantasy that many have of standing up at the Academy Awards and giving an acceptance speech? Well, this night was the closet I ever got to that. Not that awards ever really mean anything, but it felt like a great acknowledgement for all the work we had done at POV. The Time Warner folks were in the audience that night as well and came up afterwards all excited about me joining them.
Through all these changes, Joyce and I had been struggling about what to do with Sevrin. I really didn’t know sometimes if she would be able to function in the real world, but Joyce always believed. She was right... eventually, but an incident occurred that represented the last straw for me. Sevrin was now driving. She had taken the car one night and lied about where she was going. She was attracted to this arts community in a bleak part of LA. When she came home, Joyce was really angry. Me, not so much this time. How many times did I take the car when I was a kid and go someplace I didn’t belong.
Joyce took the lead and grounded Sevrin for a lengthy period of time. No TV, no phone calls with her friends. Pretty restricted. Sevrin of course thought it was unfair, but I remember saying in a very calm voice, "hey.. you got caught, it’s not the end of the world." Sevrin left us and went back to her side of the house. Later I was walking by her room and heard her on the phone. This was just a half hour after she had been told no phone. I came to door and she just smirked at me like, "try to stop me" she seem to imply.
At that point I went ballistic. Joyce came up behind me. Sevrin wanting to get out of the way of my anger, pushed us both hard back against the wall in the hall and ran to her bedroom with me right behind her. I felt a blind rage come up. All the times we had dealt with this were coming to a head. When she slammed her bedroom door in my face, I backed up and kicked it in, knocking it off its hinges. Sevrin by that time was out the door to the back yard, but if she had been standing there, she could have been hurt. Sevrin disappeared into the night. Joyce was beside herself and I said, let her go. She can live somewhere else until she agrees to play by the family agreements like the rest of us.
Sevrin was gone for two days as I remember, but as I came home on the third day from work I realized she was back in the house. I asked Joyce if she had laid down the conditions for returning and she said no, she was just glad she was home.
That was the moment that I knew we were in trouble. If Joyce was going to continue to undermine our agreements with Sevrin, even if she thought she had good reasons, how was Sevrin ever going to learn? And for me, I didn't want to feel the kind of rage come up again and I was really tired of the drama that ruled all of our lives. It took a little time, but I found an apartment behind the studio and moved some stuff out. I just needed the space and Joyce didn’t complain too much at that point.
What Are We Doing?
I am not going into all the detail of what happened next, but I will say my old pattern came up again. My big career was in high gear and I wanted to play. While all this was going on Lena and her husband had separated as well. Lena now had her own home with her son. We had continued to enjoy working together. I had never had a creative partner that was now... going to be my lover. You could make an argument that both Lena and I were still recovering from our failed marriages. We both certainly found long term relationships after Lena had the good sense to move off, but at the time we were having fun and we just fell in deeper.
Arriving at Time Warner Interactive
The TWI office was down the street from Warner’s Studios. I had driven by it hundreds of times and now I had an unrestricted lot pass.
As I suspected, TWI was in chaos when I arrived. I began by looking at how we could get out of their existing projects. I then started then putting together a real production plan that would get us turned around. This meant traveling to New York a lot to meet with different divisions like DC comic books, Warner Publishing and Warner Brothers Records.
I was feeling full of myself and had little patience for people and companies that were basically ripping us off. What I really didn’t really understand yet was how to play the game in the large corporate structure. I just arrived, said my piece and then left, not really thinking of the potential outcomes. I got away with this in the beginning because everyone agreed things needed to change. This would come up again when the world of Time Warner shifted and I didn’t pay enough attention to the way the winds were blowing. But that was two years off. For now Ralph, Terry and I set out to turn TWI around.
In short order I hired Lena to be one of my producers, against the corporate rules about fraternizing with employees you supervised. Pic below is me, Lena and my two assistants. I also hired another friend of my, Brian Altounian to be my CFO.
Also made a deal with David Todd to become one of our external labels. He changed the name of the group from POV to Mass Media.
Ralph and I plotted our strategies and I went looking for a smaller game to release while the big ones got started. Soon after that , a producer showed us this very elaborate puzzle game he called... Endorfun. Here's the attract mode and some examples of game play. The object of the game play was to maneuver a block around the grid and capture scoring blocks that would appear and disappear. I found this video on YouTube all those years later.
It was like a psychedelic Tetris on steroids. The other thing I liked about it was that it had an original soundtrack that was created by the band that made the game called OneSong. AND they were using positive subliminal messages in the sound track. Totally addictive. I jumped at it and Lena and I spent a lot of time in Northern California shepherding them towards release.
I also took extended trips to Scotland and England to visit our production groups there and commissioned a piece called “Drowned God” based on the question... "did aliens influence our human development." After all, humans had made a dramatic leap in intelligence approximately 50,000 years ago and no one still knows why.
I would fly the red eye from LAX to London Heathrow. We would take off at sunset in LA and fly all night to London. On one of those trips I awakened mid-flight over Greenland. The full moon was out and all I could see was snow and ice to the horizon. Not a light of human existence anywhere. A truly mystical moment. I wrote some lines down that came into my mind…
Flying at Night
(Remembered somewhere over Greenland – 1995)
There is something about flying at night
when the cabin lights have dimmed
and fellow passengers have quieted…
Somewhere out there
beyond space and time
days float randomly like leaves in the wind
as if they were yesterday
My father’s Mustang
escaping the concrete rivers of LA
a girl who picked me up in Colorado
the summer of love that changed everything
marching off to STOP the war
And the music… always the music
an endless soundtrack of sights, sounds
and smells of such delicious seduction
These days there are moments
as these celebrated fables fall away
I feel the limitations of my earthly presence
release with age…
My remembering returns to a state
where what I imagined, I experienced
Not bound by the density of gravity
or the sensations of the relative
not limited by petty emotions or ignorance
simply unbound creativity with the power to transcend
All this is stowed away
as a voice announces our return to Terra Firma
but these days, out there in the limitless field of possibilities
what I assumed was me and what is not
And for a few brief seconds
the veil parts
showing me something more than myself
When Lena went with me for “research” we traveled to all our favorite sacred places like Stone Hinge, the Tor, the sacred spring at Glastonbury, Chartre Cathedral in France etc. and took meetings with talent at lavish country estates. We were going from my house to limo to first class air flights to limo to meetings and back again. It was a wonderfully bizarre existence. I rarely touched the real world. You lose track quickly of what is really happening.
A Community of Friends
At the height of my big Hollywood journey I also had a wonderful group of friends. This is us at our favorite eclectic Topanga Canyon dinner spot, The Inn of the Seventh Ray!
The group included everyone that was in my work family… Cliff – puzzle maker extraordinaire, David and Gerry Todd, Herb and Elaine, Leslie, Carri, David and his wife and Lena and her best friend Brooke. It was a wonderful night…
The Earth Moved… Again
It was 1994. I was actually just feeling settled in my little rental behind the studio when the earth moved again. In the middle of the night when I was in deep REM sleep, the big LA quake hit. Unlike the San Francisco one where I was awake, the rattling woke me up from the deepest sleep and I instinctively made it off the bed and to the top of the stairs. I watched as the walls heaved, crashing sounds emerged from the kitchen and it seemed like it went on forever.
When it stopped, I made it down the stairs in the partial darkness and fell over a pile of my stuff that was now in the middle of the living room. I looked into the kitchen and all the appliances had dangerously been pulled out out from the wall with gas lines exposed etc. It turned out the epicenter was only 10 miles away and fairly shallow. I got in my car and as I drove to Joyce’s house, I turned on the radio expecting news that this was the big one.
When they said 6.8, I thought no way. Joyce and the kids were ok, Lena and her son were okay and the POV studio had suffered some broken pictures and lots of stuff strewn on the floor, not bad, but the rest of LA did not fare as well. With all the damage however, with the exception of one area, no one ever lost water. In that area, there would be riots as people got thirsty. Just imagine if that had been all of LA. It would have been like those LA disaster films. I thought afterwards, what were the odds that I would be present for two big California quakes. And one of them was at the World Series.
Soon after, I moved to Hollywood in the Burbank area behind the Warner Brothers studio to be closer to work. Are you ready, it was called… “Lake Hollywood Estates.”
Again, I did this mostly for the convenience, not really understanding the effect it would have on Joyce and Lena. And where did I pick to live? I figured if you were going to do the complete Hollywood fantasy you lease a house right under the famous Hollywood sign.
I hated living in the big city, but there was this area around the old Hollywood reservoir that was between Burbank and West Hollywood that was like living in the country. The first day I hiked to the Hollywood sign and set off the voice of god alarm that proclaimed… “Move away from the sign”. My new home had all the LA features, a great pool, hot tub and a sport court with my very own basketball goal. We had lots of fun in that house when Bruce, Neal and Louis came to visit.
And Madonna lived right up the road. The house was big for one person, but I figured I would have company.
Joyce and I had continued to see each other for dinner sometimes and an occasional trip. We still cared about each other, but we just couldn’t make family life work. I think my holding on was just denial on my part and hardly fair to Lena.
In the back of Joyce’s mind I am sure she thought that as long as I lived close there was always the chance for reconciliation. When I moved into Hollywood and came to get the rest of my stuff, she felt very hurt. Lena, on the other hand, when I announced the move wondered why we were not doing this together but the last thing I wanted to do was take care of another child again that was not mine. I was so out to lunch with all the big career stuff I was experiencing that it never really crossed my mind that this move would create such a fuss. Very confusing, but clarity was on its way…
About a year and half into TWI I pretty much had everything re-organized, Endorfun was close to shipping and we had stuff in the pipeline from Mass Media and other companies. My next lesson in corporate life began with the announcement that Time Warner and CNN were merging. Not a bad idea on the surface, as we ultimately reported to Michael Fuchs who created and ran HBO. He was considered the heir apparent to the current TW CEO when he retired. Michael was a passionate creative type with a temper at times. I met him a couple of times, but he really kept hands off TWI, which was fine with me.
The morning that the CEO of Time Warner and Ted Turner were to meet the press with the other company heads, Michael marched into the CEO's office and told him the merger was a mistake and he wouldn’t be any part of it. As the story goes, the CEO tried to talk Michael off the ledge, insisting that when the sale went through Ted Turner would have a fancy title like vice-chairman, but would go off to his ranch in Montana to raise buffalo. Michael didn’t believe him. He thought he was being replaced as the number two guy. He refused to go to the press conference so the CEO fired him on the spot.
I certainly could relate to Michael’s temperament. He wanted it his way like I did, but in this case he misread the tea leaves and was suddenly on the street. I asked my superior in New York what it meant and she just sighed. “We just went from being perfectly aligned with the future of Time Warner, to being the project of the guy that was just fired.” Who knew who would run HBO now and what they would think of us.
They Are Coming for Us
Alarm bells should have gone off. I should have started the necessary networking to cover us in this new situation. But this was my first time in big corporate life and I figured if I just did a good job and we delivered results they would realign us with the new folks. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This change turned out to be politics pure and simple. Warner’s Music and Warner’s Interactive Cable TV had VP’s that had something in their titles to do with interactive. They didn’t know anything about it other than it was hot. While they were trying to find the new head for HBO, these two came to visit a lot and asked a bunch of questions. I liked the guy from the Cable division, but the guy from Warner’s music was shifty. I should have seen that sooner.
One other thing I got started at TWI in the middle of all this was an Internet chat program called “The Palace”.
After getting everything sorted out with our games, I began looking at the Internet. It had arrived in the consumer world in 1995. Although its bandwidth was very limited it was a different animal from all the other new technologies. I had seen this programmer playing with a graphic chat program. I asked what it was and he said that it was something he was tinkering with on his own, but no one was interested. I sat down and said show me. He explained the program allowed you to build your own graphic “Palace” on your laptop and then hook it up through the fledgling Internet to other people’s Palaces on their laptops. You were represented by a cute little Pac Man like icons and you talked to other people in text cartoon bubbles by typing. Because there was not that much data being passed over the Internet, it ran fairly smoothly on low bandwidth.
I immediately pulled him out of the back room and built a production group around him. That summer I ended up in Time Warner's New York corporate board room demonstrating it to the big wigs. To give you an idea of how early it was in the Internet coming on line, they looked at the graphic palace on their big screen in New York and asked who all the characters were. They were actually staff back in Burbank who were "live". One of them said “who are you calling characters.” The New York folks were impressed yet probably still didn’t get the importance of it as the time, but we were on the cutting edge of this new emergence that would change the world.
Endorfun had its press review about two months later in September. We did a big "rock and roll" launch at a hot spot in San Francisco. All the press came including Rolling Stone that was starting to pay attention to the game biz. I knew the subliminal messages were going to be an issue. The FCC had banned them from all advertising and even though they were positive affirmations they had a mixed reputation.
Ralph and I discussed it, and we thought as long as we published the affirmations in the instruction manual and you had the option to turn them off, we would be okay. We also knew someone in the press, maybe one of our friends, would try to make a thing of it. We waited as the previews came out. The day came when I opened the LA Times and on the front page of the entertainment section was this big expose on Endorfun... accusing us of hiding the subliminal messaging and corrupting kids.
The LA Times hit piece had been written by a woman that had really befriended us, but that was Hollywood. The storywent around the world. If you can believe this, the British Parliament took it up in discussion. We called a press conference and when asked if we were polluting the minds of children, we explained that you could turn off the sumliminal tracks and there was a list of them in the manual. Who could argue with the statement… “Feel better.” The pushback evaporated and we got ready for the launch of our first big product.
Innocent or Guilty
It was October and the OJ trial was coming to a head. As I walked into the office that morning, I noticed the guy from Warner’s Music was in the board room unannounced. I had the LA Times under my arm with the big Endorfun piece. Ralph and I walked in and he closed the door. He proceeded to tell us that they were consolidating all the Time Warner interactive entertainment groups into Warner’s Music and our projects were being given to a friend of his that had not produced much of anything. This guy just wanted control at Warner’s Music and I guess he thought we would be a problem. This was the guy that we had been through months of poking our financials etc. We had really streamlined the group with a somewhat smaller staff and we had been promised we were good. Not so much apparently.
I remember asking him if he had seen the LA Times that morning and the great press Endorfun had gotten. He could have of cared less, other than it would help his friend succeed. Lesson learned. Never trust anyone that asks that many questions that you have no personal relationship with. Had I be-friended him, could it have been different? Who knows. In my experience, corporate types like him really don't care about creating anything. That’s why I didn’t like him much. Their job was to accumulate power and he was quite a player as it turned out. I had been blooded. I walked out of the office just as the OJ verdict came in of not-guilty. One of those days I thought indeed.
If the Glove Fits
OJ Simpson was a star running back at USC and in the NFL. When he had finished playing football he had developed a kind of Hollywood career as an actor in comedic farces like the Naked Gun series. He also had a beautiful wife. The "juice" seemed to have it all. But behind the carefully crafted image of the "good" guy there turned out to be a darker side. One that was full of anger and jealousy that when triggered had resulted in some incidents of spousal abuse towards his wife Nicole, but nothing like the scene the police found outside the home Nicole was living in since they had separated. The police had been called because a neighbor had reported hearing screams. What they found was shocking. Nicole and a male friend were found
lying in pools of their own blood, stabbed multiple times with a hunting knife. A APB was put out for OJ. That led to the next bizarre scene where Simpson appeared to be running south to Mexico in a Ford white bronco driven by a friend of his coming to us "live" on television.
The only reason I am spending any time on this as a noteworthy news event of the 1990's was that it was a pre-cursor to what was going to happen to "news" stories as the Internet and social media platforms came on-line. There had always been sensational, tabloid crime stories in Hollywood, where someone famous killed someone or was killed themselves, but the OJ trial coverage that pounded us day after day with all the lurid details of the grisly murders was something new. There were so many sub currents to the trial. First, there were the racial issue. A black man was being accused of killing a white woman and male companion. America did not have a great history in terms of dolling out justice for black men, particularly if they killed a white woman, However, whatever racial overtones there were were trumped by the "celebrity" aspect of OJ's fame. Hollywood's history was also full of cases where a well known actor had committed some dark deed only to have it swept under the rug by the powers at be.
OJ, who appeared guilty before the trial got under way, hired an all star legal team including the flamboyant Johnny Cockrun and pleaded NOT-guilty. The tables seemed to have been reversed. The famous OJ now was going to spend whatever it took to defend himself. It was soon clear that the LA county prosecutors assigned to case were over matched. The pivotal moment in the trial came when the prosecutors allowed OJ to put on the blood soaked gloves they claimed he wore that night. It never should have happened. First the gloves had shrunk from all the blood saturation and OJ was allowed to pull the gloves on over another pair of plastic gloves he already was wearing/
They appeared not to fit. Before the prosecutors realized they had blundered, that image was locked in the juries mind. Despite all the evidence that suggested other wise OJ lawyers kept going back to the gloves not fitting. The day we were informed that our division at Time Warner was being collapsed into Warner's Music without us, he was acquitted of all charges. The tabloid media coverage of the trial had swayed public opinion in ways we would later see social media platforms do.
However, the story of OJ did not stop there. The parents of Nicole's male companion got a civil guilty verdict that ordered OJ to pay restitution based on the same evidence that had been used at his criminal trial. In 2006, Simpson wrote a book called "If I Did It," which set out how he might have murdered his wife, had he been so inclined. The book was withdrawn and pulped by HarperCollins shortly before being published. And exactly 13 years to the day he had been found not guilty of double murder a jury unanimously found Simpson guilty on 12 counts of robbery and kidnapping charges relating to yet another bizarre OJ incident, where he claimed he was trying to retrieve some sports memorabilia from people who had stolen it. In the end, justice was served.
Closing Up the TWI Studio
There was a lot to unwind at Time Warner before the changes would take place. I was able to separate The Palace out to its own separate group, because Warner’s Music was too stupid to want it. Of our projects in production they eventually successfully released most of them. I had a contract for three years (at least I had figured that out) and they paid off the remainder of last year in full. They also settled with David Todd at Mass Media so, we were both sitting on some cash. It had been a crazy two years. I went home to my house under the Hollywood sign and sat in the hot tub wondering if I just should take some time off. That wouldn’t happen of course as I got restless. The Mouse would come calling two months later.
Down the Rabbit Hole (Cracked Open)
Through the last six stressful months at TWI, Lena and I started to experience some distance. We still had fun working together, but in spite of what she had said in the beginning, my ambivalence about living with her and her son was a problem. I was wheeling and dealing and didn’t pay much attention to her sadness until she announced she was seeing someone else. In that moment, I thought fine. I have more than enough to deal with.
About a week later I was driving to Ojai, one of my favorite retreat spots, when all of a sudden this big wave of emotion arose out of nowhere and I started sobbing uncontrollably.
It was so intense I had to pull off the road. I just sat there feeling really totally panicked. At that point in my family of origin, we had not talked much about the depression and anxiety that seemed to be present. Occasionally, my mother would ask me if I ever felt dark moods come up for seemingly no reason. I said, of course, she of all people have experienced this with me all the way back into my childhood. I figured whatever this was it would pass, but it didn’t. It literally was so overpowering I had trouble functioning. This was right in the middle of the transition out of Time Warner, so for once work could not make it better. My close friends noticed something and were concerned. Sometime afterwards Mass Media held the Thunder in Paradise launch party. There were people there from TWI including Lena.
This was the first time we had seen each other since this started. We talked for a while. She was surprised I felt so deeply about us parting ways. It actually didn’t make sense to me either, but what was fueling it at that point was deep. It seemed to have been triggered by Lena leaving, but in the end it would be so much more.
I got so worried that I called the therapist Joyce and I had worked with. I said, “you have to help me. I don’t care where this leads, I have to get to the bottom of it.“ That began over a year and half of deep, intense therapy sessions, sometimes multiple times a week. I wasn’t sleeping well all alone in my big house under the Hollywood sign which didn't help. It seemed like one of those classic moments out of the movies when the character finally achieves some dream and realizes all of it means nothing.
I tried everything I had in the past to stabilize my emotional and psychological systems. I had begun a karate practice with Lena before she left so I threw myself into that.
It would help for a while, but then the demons would return. I would end up getting my black belt in record time and for the first time feeling really comfortable in my body, so that was something. I had this history of feeling big and goofy. The karate practice helped me ground that and channel the energy in more positive ways.
I remember someone asking me if I felt suicidal. I commented no, but I felt the deep pain that would cause someone to think about it. It was a type of hell for me as I became more vulnerable, stripped of all that I identified with as me. In those moments, I would re-live over and over again situations where I had hurt someone. It was like I was experiencing a movie of these failures. They would not leave me alone. It was in some sense a life review.
Dragonfly Stories & Rock and Roll
While I was in between Time Warner and Disney I had some time on my hands so I did something that I had been threatening to do for a while. For years I had moved boxes of audio tapes from my recoed days from home to home and I was tired of it. I decided to go through all the boxes, keep a few things and throw the rest away. I thought it might take a few weeks, but when I opened those boxes it was like opening a time capsule.
A bunch of the tapes were ones that had been made just for reference while we were in the studio as Sweet Pain. The tapes not only contained songs we were working on, but us talking to each other between takes. It was like listening to a movie from another chapter of my life. Suffice to say it became a big project and what emerged out of were the 12 songs I liked from my quiet side and a CD of the rock and roll pieces from Sweet Pain. It helped me manage my depression and anxiety. When I was working on this project I felt better.
One of the gems I found was the original recording of me working out the lyrics to “Green Eyed Lady.” I had gone into a two track studio with my friend and guitarist extraordinaire Carl Johnson and just laid it down in one take when I was trying to time the lyrics with the music. My version is very different from what Sugerloaf did with their hit record.
By this time in the mid-nineties audio technology had gone totally digital and as a result we really could improve the sound of these old tapes. I heard things on these recordings I had not heard since the original sessions in the studio. Jennifer came in at the tail end of this project and I remember thinking this was quite an introduction for her of one chapter of my life.
The Mouse Calls
This was all happening in the fall of 1995. A cohort of mine that I had worked with at Phillips called. He was now at Disney Interactive and said they were expanding rapidly and they wanted to talk to me about joining up.
I remember wondering if I could even show up for an interview, but I rallied and it was decided I would join Disney beginning in the New Year. They wanted me to put together a production group and help them become more of a game company. They also had just launched Disney.com and I was intrigued about what you could do with their global Internet audience.
With Disney starting after New Year’s, it was coming on Christmas and I decided to do something that had always helped my mood in the past. Take a road trip. I wanted to see Canada, so Joyce and the girls and I made plans to celebrate Christmas at the Banff Resort, a literal Christmas wonderland.
I dreamed up the grand plan. I would drive up the west coast, visit cousins in Portland and then head north to Vancouver. I even made appointments to see property in Montana. That’s how crazy I was.
I visited with my family in the Bay Area on the way up. I stayed with my mother and she was clearly concerned about my state. She would ask about it and I would try to tell her what I knew, but it just overwhelmed her. My sister would later tell me that she was concerned that when I took off, she might not see me again.
Arriving in Portland I connected with the cousins. An interesting thing happened. I asked them if they ever felt depressed. That opened up a huge conversation about how it ran in their branch of the family as well. A pattern (something I was trained to pick up) was beginning to emerge. Each of them had a different version of it, but it also tracked back to their Dad (my mother’s brother) that had died early of cancer not helped by alcoholism.
For some reason this was the beginning of the way back. I did not feel so alone, yet there was much more to work to do. A side light of this connection with the Portland clan was that it opened up conversations with our branch of the family. My mother had been somewhat estranged from them for a while. My visiting opened up a connection that would broaden in the years to come. My family always thanked me for this, but at the time I was still careening out of control.
So much so, as I drove from Portland to Seattle I called an airline stewardess that I had met on one of those international flights for TWI and suggested she join me.
Can you imagine how this went? Her company was welcome, but she had to deal with me dissolving into tears every now and then. AND I had plans to meet Joyce and the kids in a week at Banff. All habits, particularly bad ones, die slowly. I put her on a plane in Vancouver and headed east through the Canadian Rockies having no awareness it was the middle of winter.
Canadian Highway 1 runs west to east through lots of territory with no towns.
I was driving a four wheel drive Jeep Grand Cherokee so I wasn’t concerned about getting stuck, but I was not ready for the miles of empty road with an occasional small town. If I was ever going to get lost and disappear this would be the place. I felt deeply alone and somewhat desperate as I finally pulled into Banff.
The Banff Hotel was beautiful, all decked out for the holidays. Joyce was sentimental about Christmas and I thought she would love it. I dumped my stuff in our suite and headed to Calgary to pick them up at the airport. I had no idea what was going to happen.
They arrived in high spirits. It had been awhile since we had been together as a family so the girls were cautious, which was to be expected.
We actually really enjoyed the four days there. Joyce would occasionally catch me getting teary, but I couldn’t say why. The other thing that emerged later was that I came to understand there was no going back. Whatever I was going to do next would not include us as a family as we had been. I just didn’t know how long it was going to take before I stabilized.
After hundreds of miles of driving, I made it home and readied myself as best I could for Disney. In the end, the road trip had not really helped. Again, one of those old mainstays I would go to when things got rough, just wasn’t enough this time. Whatever this was would not let go that easily. One side note that Jennifer and I would talk about later. She lived in Sun Valley in Idaho at that time. I remember being at the crossroads that led south to Colorado and north to Sun Valley. I thought about exploring SV, but headed south. You just never know where those turns will take you.
I was still processing the drive while I got ready for Disney. I had a measure of excitment about it. It was Disney for god’s sake. They were on everyone’s fantasy list of employers. Or so it seemed from the outside. I arrived at Disney Interactive while they were in temporary headquarters. Their new digs were being renovated. I got shown to my office, knowing no one, but my friend who was on the tech team. I proceeded to attend these huge meetings of over 30 people.
There was lots of conversation about Disney Interactive becoming a game company to compete with Activision and Electronic Arts. It also became apparent to me that they had no technology to build games. Real game companies invest lots of time and money to build those development tools and platforms like we had at POV. Being the new guy and not clear on what I was to be doing I couldn't tell them that. Just didn't have the energy to take them on. I didn’t think that traditional video games were their future. It really was the new game… the Internet.
The Road Back
I resumed my therapy with Jackie, but she sensed we had reached some sort of plateau. I was so emotionally fragile that I couldn’t dig out the next piece. She finally suggested that I consider medication that might help me find some stability. I had never taken anything like that before. She sent me to a psychiatrist who would do the work up and prescribe.
He was a very colorful guy and began by saying… “we have no idea how these medications help.” The brain and how it processed pharmaceuticals was still a black box. They prescribed things into the system and then waited for results. If it worked fine, if it didn’t they would try something else. This process required me to provide them with a great deal of family history going back three generations. This led me back to my mother and others on both sides of the family. There was a lot to collect it turned out.
I remember the day he evaluated everything. I had said something like “everyone” must have something like this. He laughed and said “Not everyone, not like this. Your case is big”. There was a history of depression, electric shock treatments, committals to psyche hospitals, suicides etc. on both sides of the family going back generations. He clicked his pen and said it was a miracle I had managed this long. It did help to know I was not alone, and subsequent conversations opened up in my extended family as everyone jumped in.
I was also beginning to share some of what was going on with me with friends. To my surprise many of them were also on anti-depressants. My psych doc prescribed Zoloft. It came with instructions that my symptoms might get worse for a couple of weeks before they got better, if it did.
True to form, it did get worse, particularly in the middle of the night and I would call friends in a panic that had agreed to help me. They would just say… stay with it and then one day, it was like everything relaxed. If it had been a meditation moment the sound would have AHHHHH. I couldn’t believe it. My brain stabilized and I wondered if this is what people felt as normal. The Zoloft gave me a floor to work from as I turned to the next thing that would make a huge difference.
One of the things that Jackie and I had done a lot of work on was my fear I was not remembering something dark that had happened in my childhood. What was my angry/fear about at some deep level? Had I pushed something back and now it was emerging. If you remember, my Boy Scout leader had been caught molesting boys in a cabin that I had stayed with him in. I was worried that it had happened to me.
It turned out after much digging, there was nothing deep/dark there, but there was something else that we noticed. I had brought pictures of my childhood to use in our sessions to use as reference. I noticed that up to about age 7, we all (me) looked happy as a family. After that there was something else in the images that suggested something had changed. I was well aware that in my teens my Dad and Mother had fought over me as part of the issues they were dealing with. Jackie suggested that I invite my mother to come to one of our sessions. (Dad was already dead) What had emerged in the work we did was that I had a real issue finding my mother in any of the past memories from early on. Dad was clear, a big presence, but it was like my mother wasn’t there.
My mother was a very kind, intelligent woman. She really looked after us except when my Dad would go off. She would try to make up for it afterward, but not when it was happening. So, if she was so helpful, why couldn’t I find her? My mother was a very private woman with no experience in therapy. She had been prescribed Valium in the 50’s when she was not feeling like the "life of the party.” We did not have a history of talking deeply about these things so I was surprised when she agreed to come.
She brought a bunch of letters I had written to both my parents at different times in my childhood promising to be better. They brought back a lot of the trauma. I could feel the shame well up. However, the real story she brought to share was the timing of the first time my Dad had talked to her about leaving. I was 7 years old. This was much earlier than I thought of them having problems. She had three small kids, no real career, so you can imagine how that must have frightened her. Would I, as a sensitive kid, feel the change in her? Would I assume it had something to do with me? Did I feel…”left” “not seen”.
Answers to all of those questions were a big YES. The primary thing that story did for me was let me know I wasn’t crazy. Something had changed quite a bit earlier than I thought. And what could I do about it now? I could simply forgive her and myself. She did her best and most importantly it wasn’t just me. All those years of feeling unsure or fearful got seen in a different light. All those deep feelings of betrayal and feeling diminished. At this time, Joyce, the kids, and Lena, had all moved off and this deep emotional wounding of mine was finally making itself known. Maybe there was hope. My mother had helped me change my story about it.
One last thing she asked for in return. She wondered if I would be there for her when she became too old to care for herself. The fact that she had to ask was a sign of how much she didn’t feel she really knew me as an adult. I said yes of course and her request stuck with me until years later when she would be on her death bed and needed my help. Helping her in that moment was part of a powerful final act between us. More on this later.
Disney Interactive moved into to its very fancy new offices and production space. My role became more defined almost by accident. At the time, Disney was getting ready to release Pixar’s “Toy Story”. They apparently had a group working on a Toy Story Internet game for a year and had gotten nowhere. The pressure was on so they came to me. They asked if my group could do something… in six weeks.
What I had learned working in these big corporate environments was that they had a tendency to “meeting” you to death. Disney was particularly guilty of this. I had watched as someone brought an idea into one of these gatherings and by the time all the pundits were through with it, there was no creative life left in it. However, every now and then the bean counters got so desperate they were open to another way of working.
I told them I would take this project on with two rules. No meetings until we had something to show them and no limits to the budget. They made a face, but it turned out this was one of those times. They really had no choice. I hired a bunch of people including Cliff Johnson the puzzle designer I had created Disney’s Cartoon Arcade with and we had at it.
One of the extreme limitations of the Internet then was its limited bandwidth. There was no such thing as broadband yet and even though Disney.com was getting millions of visitors already, what you could do was very crude. Cliff and I flew up to Pixar, which in those days was in a strip mall and met with my old friend from Lucasfilm, Ed Catmull who was running the place for Steve Jobs. He opened up his art department to us. They gave us small animations of each of the Toy Story characters.
We thought we could get some sort of gameplay out of these characters if we had a simple design. Our design idea was to have a different toy get lost each day and Cliff’s puzzle games would hold the clues to the characters location. In a sense it was like the classic game of Clue. “Woody was under the bed.” Disney wanted a print out that they could put their branding on it, so Cliff devised these puzzles to be solved on paper.
The Kalachakra Mandala
My ex-wife Jane Bay and I had talked some over the years. On my drive about at Xmas that I re-named my “apology” tour I had stopped in Marin as part of my twelve step like program. I tried to apologize for all the hurt I had caused her. She was quite forgiving, reminding me that she had a part to play in our troubles as well.
Now, she was calling to ask if she could send someone to me for help. She rarely asked anything of me so I said yes. Barry Johnson arrived a few days later on a mission to get to the Disney Foundation with something he had developed. I could help him do that with a phone call.
Barry had been a documentary filmmaker who had been literally looking through the lens of his camera at the Dali Lama when he had a spiritual conversion. He dropped everything and moved to Dharamshala on the border of India and Tibet where the Dali Lama was in exile.
Barry became a monk, crimson robes and all, and as his story was told stayed for 10 years. While he was there he was exposed to the Tibetan sand paintings. These were sacred art pieces that were created by the monks positioning one grain of colored sand at a time into a mandala design and then they would destroy it. A reminder of our impermanence. The west had not seen them yet.
For ten years in India when Barry got an audience with his holiness he would tell him the West had to see this sacred art form. For ten years, the Dali Lama said it was not time. When Barry decided to go back to the western world he met with the Dali Lama one last time. After Barry finished thanking him for ten years, his holiness asked why he had not said anything about the sand paintings. Barry said he had given up. To that his holiness said it was now time and Barry was going to be the one to bring them to the west. Barry went home to New York and arranged for a gala at the Modern Art Museum. The rest is history. This beautiful sacred art form was now open to the Western world for all to see.
After his first mission was complete, Barry organized a program utilizing the creation of sand paintings as collaborative projects between mixed groups of young Tibetan monks and serious US youth offenders. He thought the healing power of constructing the sand paintings could turn some of the youth offenders around. That was why he wanted an introduction to the Disney Foundation. He wanted them to house this program at Epcot in Florida.
When Barry arrived at Disney for our lunch he handed me a big floppy disc. He was being very mysterious. I put it in my computer and up on the monitor came a dark field with the beginning of what looked like little colored lights appearing. They were tracing a circular pattern and it was a few minutes before I realized that this was the Kalachakra Mandala. It was appearing as a screen saver, revealing itself in the way the monks constructed it bit by bit of sand. I was blown away by its beauty. I flipped it up on to my group’s network and people started looking out over their cubicles asking what this was.
We went out to lunch and I kept exclaiming about what I had seen. In my state it may have had some healing power for me as well, but then Barry made me an offer that would alter my life… again. The Dali Lama was coming to Pasadena in a couple of weeks to do a full 5 day Kalachakra training. For the first time he was going to do the teaching in Mandarin Chinese. This was a hugely political statement in that China had invaded his country all those years ago and forced him into exile. The Chinese had tried all kinds of things to discredit him in the eyes of the world, but the Dali Lama’s presence transformed all who sat with him. Teaching in their native language was just another way he did this.
Barry invited me to come to the training. At that point, like many in Hollywood, I had been to a few short public talks the Dali Lama had given. My brother’s wife Virginia Miller and I had been to one together in LA earlier. I had liked the energy he resonated, but there was no way I could take off a week from work. Barry had this way of looking at you that screamed “really” and since the Toy Story project was mostly done, I agreed to come, having no idea how this event would alter me in a myriad of ways.
You Never Know… Ever
I keep saying that unexpected things are the way life partially unfolds. In this case, I took the job at Disney to have something to do while I tried to heal my heart and mind. There was no Toy Story or the Dali Lama on the horizon when I made that choice.
Here’s what I learned from this particular unfolding. If you make choices that are, to the best of your ability, in alignment with your true self (not ego) at any point in the timeline, more times than not these choices can lead to game changers. I am not saying this happens every time. Dead ends are a part of the process as well, but with everything I had been through for the last year and half, at some point the future was going to show up and I would move beyond the suffering. When I agreed to attend the training however I still didn’t see that future coming.
El Coyote, Altered States and the Beverly Hills Hotel
Jane Bay called me to thank me for helping Barry. In the next breath she announced she was coming to the training. Jane never came to LA, but here she was. The next thing that happened is that my old friend Jessica Britt called out of nowhere asked me what I was doing. I told her about the training and she announced she was coming. For a brief moment remember I was trying to work it out with Jessica when I met Jane. They knew each other, but this was plain strange.
I had been alone much of the time recently and suddenly my past was showing up. My mental and emotional state had improved to the point that I was playing with going out again. Unlike before, I had literally been out of any love relationship for all this time. It was part of the welcome shift from the old pattern. There was one producer at Disney that would have dinner with me sometimes so I asked her to join me for the VIP events when the training was done that Barry got me into.
I also told Jane I wanted to see her, and in the typical Jane Bay way, she announced that she would be at El Coyote for dinner (famous LA musician hangout we frequented) and any of us that wanted to see her, were invited.
Jane is just one of those people that can pull this off, and we all gladly came. I asked her if Jessica could come… and after a moment of hesitation she agreed. This would be an interesting night.
Jess and I arrived at El Coyote to find a very long table set in the back for Jane’s party. Apparently, many friends had taken her up on her invite. Jess and I said I hi and then proceeded to sit down the table from Jane. Barry arrived with a beautiful women in tow. I thought to myself, this former monk is doing well. They sat next to Jane. I was perfectly happy to be a bystander. However, there was a moment when I looked down the table and Barry’s woman friend ‘s eyes locked in with me in recognition. Shit... I thought.
Jennifer had been out of her marriage to Ed for about the same time I had been unaccompanied. I had just begun to like the freedom and in this moment there was nothing to say that was changing. We made it through dinner and arrived at the Pasadena center where the teaching was taking place the next day. We found our seats and any thoughts about the night before quickly vanished into the seriousness of it all.
I had been around many other spiritual teachers, but in this teaching session the Dali Lama projected a field of transmission that was hard to miss. This was not the cheerful personality that everyone admired. This was a serious teaching and I felt it. At some point it got so intense I had to get up and walk around. I ended up hanging out in the balcony of the hall, sometimes lying down with my eyes closed. The teaching was the Kalachakra teaching. The same sand painting screen saver Barry showed me. All seemed in alignment.
Lunch breaks involved the bunch of us heading out somewhere and gabbing at long tables. For some reason, Jennifer and I kept sitting across from each other. When our conversation started it was effortless in that way that it is when real connection is being made. I barely made it through the training. I felt drained when I joined Barry, Jane and Jennifer on the main floor at the conclusion. At that point Barry asked me a question. "Do you have a laptop with you?" I did… I responded. He said… “good because later this afternoon we have an audience with his holiness. I have to get his blessing for the screen saver.“
I offered to loan him the laptop. “WE” did not need me to be there. However, he insisted I come so off we went to the Biltmore Hotel.
For some reason the hotel’s AC unit had overloaded with the August heat. It sort of felt like India. Jennifer meanwhile had taken her own car and got lost so she arrived late after we went upstairs. When she couldn’t find us, a man in a white suit approached and asked her if she was looking for the Dali Lama. There was heavy security everywhere, but he whisked Jenny into the elevator and deposited her on the floor of the Dali Lama’s suite. We had already entered. We never did figure out who that guy was. Angel perhaps?
I was exhausted when we went in to meet him. In the pictures taken, I just look wiped out and dazed. The Dali Lama’s staff was very intent on getting him to rest up for the VIP proceedings that night. They told Barry we would only have a few minutes. I was thinking if I was tired, how would he feel after teaching for five days? He arrived in a swirl of activity, beaming as he does.
Barry handed me my lap top to hold up to him while he looked at the screen saver. He had a reputation for loving new tech, so as he looked at the Kalachakra mandala emerge on the screen he laughed. I did my best to answer his questions until a half hour later and then it was time to go. As we headed for the door, I felt his hand on mine pulling me back and turning us towards the door. He said, let’s get a picture.
I put the laptop down as we turned... there in the doorway was Jennifer with her camera. She clicked the shot. I floated out of the suite leaving my laptop behind. When I realized later I had left it in the hotel suite, I went back the next day and it was dusted in sacred rose dust. A real take home gift.
Hollywood Spiritual VIP’s
After exiting from the Dali Lama’s suite we went downstairs to catch our breath. Because the air conditioning was off we were very dehydrated by the time we were back in the lobby. We ordered vast quantiles of lemonade. Jennifer and I kept talking non-stop. It was late afternoon and the VIP Hollywood gathering was that evening.
I have never been a big fan of Hollywood social spiritual gatherings even though they can be done with the best of intentions. This one was for a good cause, but many of the Hollywood elite just showed up to be seen. This is probably a bit unfair. I am sure some of them had a deep reverence for his holiness, but I had felt this kind of energy before as Hollywood stars get involved in the latest, greatest cause.
The opulence of the night was the first clue. Folks showed up dressed to the nines. The ballroom where the dinner and the Dali Lama’s talk were to take place was decked out like the academy awards. Against that background, we all had to change for the evening. Jennifer had friends staying in the hotel and agreed to let us wash the sweat of the afternoon off and change into evening attire. My Disney friend was meeting us at the hotel, so my conversation with Jennifer ended as I went off to meet her.
Barry had arranged for all of us to have a table near the stage. As we sat down I had my friend on my right and Jennifer on my left. I can’t remember whether Barry orchestrated this or not. Later both Jennifer and I discovered that Barry had quietly promoted each of us to the other. A bit of matchmaking perhaps. He in a sense was a coyote in that regard. Here I was going from a simple meeting at Disney about a screensaver to an opening up of a new chapter in my life... in a week.
I don’t remember too many of the details of the dinner, save for the fact that I was unintentionally rude to my friend from Disney. I kept turning to Jennifer to converse and even though I tried to include her, the connection was on my left.
The Dali Lama gave one of his public talks after dinner and I was amazed he was still going strong after five days of teaching. Afterwards, as we were standing outside the hotel waiting for our cars from the valet, I overheard Jennifer talking to Barry about sleeping on a couch somewhere that night. In that moment, I jumped in with both feet. I suggested Jennifer could stay at my house. I had two guest bedrooms in different wings of the house. I am sure there was a moment when she looked at me and thought, who is this guy, but fairly quickly she said yes and dragged her bag to my car. As we drove off I saw Barry smiling.
After dropping off my Disney friend at her car we got to my house. We stood in the kitchen continuing to talk. We were both nervous. I was so afraid of screwing up what had been a wonderful few days, we stayed standing in the kitchen talking for another two hours until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. Off we went to dream land in separate bedrooms. As I fell asleep I marveled at it all. This house, which had been the scene of so much of my painful moments lately, now had a different energy to it. It felt like there was hope for the future.
Jessica, me and Jennifer