Chapter 11 - Whidbey Island
There was a feeling that arouse in me as we made this somewhat radical change. I had been on a roll for a while, creating my stories, running my production groups, and working in Hollywood at levels beyond my wildest dreams. I came to believe on some sub-conscious level that the universe was watching over me. These risks that I took with my work and my life were being blessed by the powers that be, or so it seemed. So when Whidbey Island emerged as the next stop, no matter the potential challenges, I just assumed it would all work out. After all I (and Jennifer and Matt) were blessed by the Dali Lama.
Now being blessed is relative. It is a matter of the lens through which you look. I have re-counted since the beginning of this exit interview that this life for me has been blessed many times by its location, relationships, and its creative possibilities, but there was also at this point a sense of “entitlement” that snuck into my awareness. You can begin to believe that you are entitled to it working out mostly like you intended. For me, this hovered in the background. I believed in my ability to make things happen, so the seeming radicalness of the move to Whidbey did not concern me.
We had enough money and credit I had built up through the Hollywood years not to have to do anything for a while. Since there was no job I was going to, this was the first time I had moved for lifestyle rather than work. We did not really scout the territory before putting down roots. We were in a hurry to put Interplay behind us so we just landed in the middle of the island in the tiny town of Coupeville where Jennifer’s family lived. They would be our welcome wagon to this new life.
If we had scouted the island first we would have discovered that Whidbey Island is really three communities. The island itself was long and narrow. In Coupeville where we landed, it was only 7 miles from one ocean shore to the other.
The south end of the island, nearest to Seattle, and the location of the ferry terminal was populated by Microsoft trust funders. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but what I mean is people of means.
They either commuted to Seattle or had weekend homes. As a result, the south end of the island offered the Whidbey Institute, a sort of high scale Esalan like consciousness community, the better restaurants and the shortest transit to the mainland.
Whidbey Institute and downtown Langley on the south end
The middle part of the Island anchored by Coupeville. It was the oldest settlement on the island, having been established by whalers in the distant past. It was now primarily a farming/dairy community that was transitioning (as the farms and dairies failed) to housing developments.
The north end of the island was all military… home to a very large military base that was the headquarters of Naval intelligence operations for the Pacific.
Whidbey Island was served by the car ferry on the south end. One of the magnificent things about this area was the system of ferries that went out to all the islands north of Seattle, even reaching towards Canada.
I loved to jump on any of them and just cruise on the sound on sunny days. The ride from America, as we began to call it, to Whidbey was only 20 minutes. But the real travel time depended on catching the ferry quickly instead of waiting on the docks. The alternative if you missed the last ferry at night was to drive to a bridge that served the northern part of the island. Unless you really had to do this, it was not a desired option.
Coupeville was about a 30 minute drive north once arriving on Whidbey. A two lane road that wound through forests and farmland. When we arrived from California that ½ hour drive seemed like nothing compared to LA, but we were told that the longer we stayed, the further the mainland would move away from us. That actually happened. The island would become a sanctuary, with less and less contact with the “real” world. We would be inducted into “island life.”
We looked for a house to buy in the middle of the island. We finally came upon a 5 acre property with a “long” house on it that overlooked the famous Coupeville cove.
It was home to old growth pine, animals and birds of all types including eagles and hawks. The house was older and in need of work, but that seemed like an adventure we would love to take on. We found out later this house was built on the site of an ancient tribal village. This would bring up some unhealthy spirit issues later. For the moment the price seemed ridiculous low compared to California. We had already succumbed to the island fantasy and all it entailed, so we made an offer and dubbed our new home, “The Redtail Farm.”
The Trip North
As we were packing up the Laguna Beach home, Ed came back into our lives. We had let him stay in our home a couple of times when he was visiting Matt. We later learned he was partially there to collect information to challenge Jennifer again on the custody front. To be fair, his world was rocked again by our move to Whidbey. It was an even longer trip for him than Laguna, although by this time Matt was old enough to get on a plane to go to him occasionally.
Nothing really came of this new challenge, but Jenny was terrified that we would be back in court again, right in the middle of this big transition. Her health issues kicked up as well, so her sister Bev came to help. She was a god send of stability and organization.
Again we were sort of in a fog. We had contracted for a huge moving truck to carry our considerable belongings to Whidbey. We would put everything in the truck and then Jennifer, Matt, Bev and I would drive our two jeeps and meet them there.
I didn’t scout the move and it turned out that the big truck could not make it up the narrow streets to our Laguna home, so they had to use smaller trucks to ferry the stuff to the big van. This cost more money and time. This would also happen on the other end at Whidbey. The big truck could not make it down the long rural driveway to the Red Tail house. The moving people threatened to not unload our stuff unless we gave them more money. This was the first of unexpected challenges that awaited.
Jenny and I organized a goodbye dinner with all my friends and creative collaborators in LA at one of our favorite Hollywood hot spots. These people had really been my family through a long and productive period of creative work.
(find pic of at restaurant)
I still felt in a daze however and didn’t make a lot of contact that night with anyone. Certainly no thank you speeches for all we had created together. We didn’t take any pictures really. It just sort of ended with some hugs and that was that. I was definably not in the moment. My mind was already moving north. This was not the end of my story in Hollywood, but that eventuality was a ways off.
We had a really nice trip north in the spirit of our new adventure. As Hollywood dropped away, all the stress of the last year went with it. We stopped along the way to see my family, to do tourists things like go to a wild animal park and eventually arrived on Whidbey.
(find pics of trip north)
As we sailed on the ferry towards our new home, a new chapter awaited our arrival.
We were exhausted from the move. We just sagged for a while. Jennifer’s family was a welcoming presence in this new place.
We finally rallied and I started exploring our new place of residence. There was much to explore along the cold northern beaches, hikes into the redwoods, fish fry’s in Coupeville etc. It was completely different than any place I had lived, and that felt right in the moment.
We also got busy renovating the house. We opened up one end and built a master suite and bathroom with a large porch attached that looked out into the trees.
The basement was turned into our media room, the outlying sheds into our storage for Y2K supplies etc.
Our theme was independence. Although we were not living completely off the grid, we did install a generator system that would power the house during outages. Island life was full of them when the storms came, and you had to make do until the issues were fixed.
We also pushed out into the community. There were a bunch of eclectic people like us living in the Coupeville area, hideouts from the real world. We also soon realized that much of what we were attracted to socially was on the South end of the island. Fortunately, we got introduced to Rick Ingrassi who was a sort of ringleader at the Whidbey Institute.
He and his wife introduced us to really interesting people that had some piece of the now and future story I was interested in exploring and adding to. The Institute became a home of sorts where we basically listened to the state of the world for that first year. It was the education I was looking for after a long time away in Hollywood. It seemed like we had something to add to this community, so we set about exploring the possibilities.
The other thing that moving to Whidbey did was continue my relationship with Claytie Mason. Claytie decided to go to college at the University of Washington in Seattle. She was going to study drama. This meant that she would come out on the weekends to the island.
We got a lot of time to explore her coming into young womanhood. Sevrin also visited and both these re-connects were a blessing. I really liked making some contribution to their lives. At this point it seemed to be going well.
One thing happened to Claytie that would foreshadow some issues we would have later about my parenting. She had a professor at Washington who was making moves on her. She was enamored with his attention and asked me what I thought. I said IF you were going to be social with him (in spite of his age) don’t take classes with him and keep it very above board in case it gets uncomfortable.
She thanked me for my input and not a week later told me a nightmare story about him taking her out to a semi-isolated place in the country and trying to seduce her. Fortunately for her he listened to her NO and took her home. It could have gone so many other ways, and I saw something of the stubbornness in Claytie. The fact that she appeared to do this in spite of my advice irritated me. No reason really for my irritation, but it would foreshadow later incidents about what my role really was with her. I certainly felt unseen at that moment and that was one of my wounding’s from childhood that could set me off.
My interest in the Internet as a global phenomenon started to coalesce around a concept I called “convergence” media. Pre-Internet, the worlds of TV, publishing, personal and cultural development were all fairly separate worlds. The Internet changed that. IF you were going to document the current state of the world and suggest how it could change, the media you produced could have a networked influence by using the Internet to connect all the pieces.
You could still make films or documentaries, you could still write books, or create music, but the Internet allowed you to connect those pieces together in on-line communities in a radically new way. If you wanted to have influence and the rewards that came with it (financial and otherwise), you framed the story you were telling in many different ways, so that they would converge on the public, instead of presenting it as isolated pieces. The advertising business had said for years that it took four notices about a new product or service before the public paid attention. Thus they would advertise on TV, in newspapers and magazines, on the sides of buses, etc. The thought experiment was that you noticed these multiple ads in different places and at some point you got curious about what was being promoted. The Internet offered those “different” places on a global scale, all originating from one source.
As the Internet gained more bandwidth, it was possible to do more than some of the early experiments I had tried. You could run video in most cases. There was no question as “search” engines began to index the world’s information; you could do anything from research to product development anywhere that was connected to the Net. That seemed in alignment with the risk I had taken coming to a remote island. The question of how you monetized this effort and got people to pay you for something having to do with this convergence was still a question in the air.
The first concept that gained some traction was this idea of a “walled” garden. What this meant to content providers is that you would give the public some free version of what you were creating, but charge them to move into your wall garden to access premium content. It was sort of like selling tickets to a movie theater. You would offer the trailer for the movie for free and then charge for tickets to see the film. The question of advertising was also up for grabs. What had made television successful was that it became a “free” form of content distribution supported by advertising dollars. Later cable services would charge fees for access and deploy advertising as well.
When we had gathered in Beaver Creek one of the concepts we considered was the notion of on-line markets or stores. Amazon at that time was pioneering this concept as an on-line book store. They could stock everything cheaply, promote them via their internet portal globally and customers could buy books and have them delivered without leaving their home.
Another concept that on-line stores would pioneer was the notion of “reviews.” If you had a global audience connected by the Internet, you in a sense could allow them to leave each other messages. These “messages” in this case were reviews (1- 5 stars or “likes” later). This would give an individual some idea of what the collective audience thought of their potential purchase. I would always read the worst reviews first and then work my way up. Eventually, content or product creators would in a sense cheat by having their friends write glowing reviews.
These concepts would ultimately revolutionize how products were promoted and purchased. I will leave it up to others to describe the full emergence of this new form of media, but for the moment it seemed completely in alignment with what I wanted to do. Create programming for worldwide audiences without a middle man like a movie studio to distribute it. It was a one to one interactive relationship and that seemed promising.
One of the things Jennifer and I did early on was develop a show for Internet Radio. This was also a new phenomenon. Instead of “broadcasting” off a tower requiring a federal license, Internet radio narrow casted on the Net globally. To access the channels you just went to an Internet address. These distribution networks were completely unregulated and would eventually evolve over the years into Podcast networks. It reminded me of pirate radio in the seventies when folks would set up unregulated radio stations on ships at sea. We connected with a Seattle company creating an Internet Radio network called “Talk Net” and developed a show that explored all the predictions for the future we were exploring including the Y2K meme.
We interviewed thought leaders we had been exposed to at the Whidbey Institute. Each night we were on, we would drive into Seattle, sit in our radio studio and talk away. Eventually, we would have been able to this from our home, but it was early yet. The station had some commercial sponsors, but for the most part it was an experiment in content creation and distribution.
The Battle in Seattle
Part of the story of the seeming corporate takeover of the planet that surfaced at the Whidbey Institute sessions was the infamous “Battle in Seattle” in November 1999.
The World Trade Organization that regulated trade between nations convened their annual meeting in Seattle. Grass roots resistance groups of all types that opposed their policies decided they would organize massive protests during the meeting. This group was really an ad hoc collection of all kinds of environmental groups, food production advocates and even some anarchists that vowed to take violent action during the confab.
The group of us at the Whidbey Institute favored a more measured response than most. We believed that there needed to be more conversation between the powers at be and the populace that was opposing them. An idea got cooked up (no pun intended) that we would organize a group of stellar chefs and invite both sides to a grand, ” peace” dinner to talk. This was to take place on one of the nights of the WTO meeting. I was fascinated by the strategy and was ready to lend my voice and hands to some sort of peaceful protest.
The Seattle authorities were not ready for the thousands of protestors that showed up. They barricaded off the hotel where the formal sessions were being held and required credentials to pass through the check points. This only made the protesters more upset. The first day protestors clashed heavily with police. So much so the National Guard was called in. All of this was being covered by cable news outlets 24-7.
As we prepared this “peaceful” meal we watched the protestors tear gassed and arrested. They also broke through the barricades and took their flag flying protests directly to the delegates. WTO members had to be escorted by armed guards to the hotel where the sessions were taking place. All of this hubbub caused quite a lot of conversation to go on globally (via the Internet) about the policies the WTO was considering.
The night for our event came. We packed up the food ingredients, utensils and headed into Seattle not knowing if we could even get to the location we had rented. As we came into the downtown area there was an eerie feeling. The streets were fairly empty as the afternoon protests had run their course and there were very few police to direct us. We made our way to our location interrupted only by the sound of some loud protesters that we could see a couple blocks away. We had no idea if we would come around a corner and be caught between the police and the protesters. It felt we were in danger of being swept up in the madness.
We made it into our location and set up the beautiful meal we had crafted. We had no idea if the delegates and protest leaders that had accepted our invitation would actually show up given the mess on the streets. To our delight most did and we served them this meal of certified organic food as they talked.
We lived to tell the tale, but for Jennifer and me it was the first instance in getting involved in street actions since the sixties.
This event would also foreshadow a story I would begin following… income disparity, the polarity of the haves and have nots. The forces competing with each other on those Seattle streets were representatives of the wealthy and grass roots rebels. I would discover later, that historically when the wealth of a culture or a country is concentrated in just the hands of 1% of the population this never, turns out well for anyone. No matter how high the rich build their walls to keep the rest of us out, eventually if it gets bad enough the 99% light the torches and come after them. This dystopian theme, reinforced by our movies and television shows, would dominate my attention when my storycatching came of age much later.
First Convergence Experiments
The first group I found to collaborate with called themselves “One World Journeys. “
They were a group of outstanding nature photographers that had convinced Epson to fund expeditions into environmentally threatened areas. Once there they would shoot the results and upload them “live” to the Internet. This was a radical undertaking considering the state of uplink technology at the time, but they figured the tech part out.
What they didn’t have yet was how to tell these stories in the layered “convergence” form that was occurring to me. Start with a summary offering, and then provide deeper and deeper dives by choice. We built an entire web community of school kids that loved tuning into these far away expeditions and seeing wildlife they could only imagine. This experiment lasted for a couple of years until the funding from Epson ran out. As good an idea as it was, it still couldn’t monetize itself without a corporate sponsor.
The end of the 20th century was upon us. 2000 was a milestone number and a potential major inflection point as we moved into the 21st century. The Y2K warning focused on a computer code glitch built into the Microsoft operating system. When the clocks turned over on New Year’s Eve it could potentially cause computer networks to crash leaving us without the usual systems of finance, food production, distribution, power etc.. IF computers really crashed this way it would take down everything that depended on them. And that was everything at this point in our cultural development.
Now, this idea also had its supporters in the environmental movement. They pointed out that we had too long depended on long supply lines for our food and power. As grocery stores became more efficient through on-line inventory control, it was often said that if the trucks stopped running there would be about 2-3 days of food in the stores. We witnessed this every time a hurricane hit. The store shelves were stripped bare in a matter of hours. So, the common wisdom was that it was a good idea to become more sustainable. A defined eco-system like Whidbey Island was small enough that it seemed the community could get ready if we got organized.
The Whidbey Institute started convening Y2K meetings to discuss what we actually knew about sustainable living. For those of us from the city that was next to zero. There were however resources on the island that did know how to farm, raise food, drill for well water etc. but they would have to be organized and brought into our effort.
Somehow an ABC news producer out of Seattle heard about our little island preparing for Y2K. I am sure in the beginning she thought it would be a humorous, wink, wink piece about some gooks on an island. However, when she came out to do her research and saw everything we were attempting to do she had quite an emotional reaction to it. She said she wanted to live in a place like Whidbey.
As a part of what they shot for the story, we did a remote Internet Radio broadcast from the island. Having been through these types of press adventures before, I held my breath to see what kind of story they would run. It turned out to be fairly positive. Here we were living in a small community making ABC news. Not bad for a bunch of posers living on an island.
Ultimately, the lesson that came out of this whole process involved the difficulty in really bringing a community together. What we eventually realized in the Y2K effort is that the people in our circles were only about 65% of the population. The other 35% did not engage. And that was because Whidbey, in all the things it was and wasn’t, also served as a hide out for people who did not want to be found. Down long dirt roads sat people that were scary and armed. If we did not include them and the apocalypse came, we would have to decide whether to protect all we had created from them. Not quite the peaceful outcome we dreamed of.
In the end December 31, 1999 came and we all gathered at the Whidbey Institute for a “watch party.” Sevrin also joined us for the fun. We built a beautiful labyrinth outside the lodge to be walked that night, evoking all manner of earth rituals, prepared and shared a big meal and sat down to watch as Y2K rolled over the world beginning in the East.
It became apparent very quickly that nothing was shutting down. The night became anti-climactic. When everyone now laughs at all the supposed foolishness, I am reminded of the story of the 10 billion dollar solution. A great deal of effort went into work arounds for the code dating issue. We will never know if that hadn’t been done and all those hours of expensive coder time paid for, would it have been different? We awoke on January 1, 2000 and said… what now?
We Loved Road Trips
From the very beginning of our relationship, Jennifer and I liked to take road trips. This would be a pre-cursor to our “RV” period later. While on Whidbey we went a lot of places and visited friends like Jack Schwarz Jennifer's mentor in Mendocino or my friends Greg and Vicky in Steamboat or the beautiful Crestone Valley which would play a part in our Boulder chapter coming up.
Gold in Canada
As a part of our involvement with the Whidbey Institute community we became more and more a part of summer gatherings on the Canadian island of Cortez. These gatherings brought thought leaders together to map a new world. These events were also networking affairs for fund raising. Many in these gatherings had money they wanted to invest in things that would get us to this new world we kept talking about.
Jennifer and I were invited to come to one of these early on. This particular event was focused on new media. They asked me to give a talk on the convergence concept I was exploring. I laid out the map and the reasoning that was driving me. My talk was very well received. Enough so that a representative of one of these funding groups approached me and asked how much we needed to build one of these communities I was talking about. It was early and the actual theme for the community was still forming, but here were considerable financial resources saying that would stake us. It seemed easy. Too easy.
Our first idea came to be known as Jenna’s Garden. In a sense it was a cultural creatives lifestyle play that included all my media stuff and Jennifer’s health and wellness work. We figured there were lots of people out there like us that were looking for products that would align with this new eco-lifestyle. I drew maps of this place for months. Here are two of them.
These funding groups gathered under the banner of conscious investing. They wanted to make money AND do good in the world. This was quite a change from the dog eat dog world of Hollywood I had come from. It was reassuring to be part of these circles that seemed to operate in a way that business would be conducted in the future. Or so it seemed.
About the same time, Jamie Sams re-entered our world. Jennifer had kept in contact with her and was instrumental in guiding Jamie towards some of the work that was being done on the stealth virus she claimed she was infected with. This co-incited with networks Jamie was engaged with in the fringe medical research community. What emerged out of her conversations with Jennifer was the idea to create one of these “walled Internet gardens” I was designing around the theme of health and wellbeing. We called it Emerging Worlds.
There were all kinds of surveys being done at the time that had highlighted an audience that identified with the term “cultural creatives.” They were interested, like us, in living in this new world and were looking for advice on products and services they could buy to make this happen. This seemed like a ready audience for what Jennifer and Jamie wanted to do, so we put together a proposal and pitched it to our Canadian funding friends. They reacted positively so we suggested an amount of development money and a development plan. Normally, at this stage it takes 3 months to pull the paper work together. It seemed like we were on our way.
When we were developing the Headlands Center for the Arts, I’d had some experience with people who talked a great creative, collaborative game, but really used it as a cover for more traditional power politics. It had been a learning experience for me and when the paper work on the investment from the Canadians kept getting delayed I should have picked up what was coming.
Jennifer and I were eager to get going on Emerging Worlds and here is where our deep sense of entitlement rose up to bite us. I believed it was just a matter of time before the investment deal was done, so I decided to commit our own personal money to fund the early development. This broke one of my cardinal rules that you never commit your personal funds until the paper work is completed and you have a check… cashed. But here I was feeling the universe leading us toward this new future, so I broke my own rule and we eventually paid the ultimate price for it.
When we finally got the paperwork from the Canadian investment group, it read like a typical venture capital deal, not a new type of more generative agreement we thought was in play in this conscious funding circle. Not only did they want to own a majority interest in Emerging Worlds, they wanted a piece of any idea or concept we came up with… forever.
This kind of indentured servitude was unheard of, even in my Hollywood den of thieves and pirates. What was worse was this attitude was not upfront. In Hollywood if you were getting screwed people were pretty clear about it. You could choose to do it or not. This move was couched in all this New Age conscious language that eventually made us feel ill. The deal had taken a year to materialize and in that time we had spent a good part of our personal money on developing the project to this point. Stupid is as stupid does…
Jamie Sams in a sense came to our rescue in the short term. She offered to put up some money of the total that was needed. This would at least get us launched, if we did not take a salary. We didn’t know what else to do, so we said yes and that decision took us deeper in Jamie’s world.
Through Jamie we met a network of fringe medical researchers that were working to find a solution to stealth viruses. There was much debate in the medical community about whether they really existed or not. There was much confusion concerning conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that mostly plagued women. They literally would be forced to bed. The traditional medical establishment at that time told them their symptoms were in their heads. This would change later, but at the moment Jamie’s network were rebels that believed otherwise and were on the hunt for treatments.
Some of them had impressive medical credentials from prestigious institutions so we went along for the ride. Jennifer, in particular, had continued to suffer off and on from similar maladies, so this made it personal. There was also another theme in this work. It was claimed that depression could also be partly caused by these viruses in the brain. My personal work had identified brain science as a black box, so this research also interested me if it would help my depression cycles.
I won’t go into all the details of the long journey we took into this world, but we started to notice the labs we were visiting were not professionally run. They felt a bit like garage operations and that should have been our first clue.
Both Jennifer and I agreed to try some of the treatments that were suggested, radical as they were. Mine in particular were based on the use of a drug called Neurontin. This drug was primarily used to control seizers in the brain. The psychiatrist I was working with also subscribed a form of amphetamines (speed) that was supposed to boost my nervous system. For me, it went haywire fast.
Jennifer was the first to suggest the amphetamines were not helping, but rather were putting me in altered, sometimes euphoric states. That was not good. I eventually got off the Neurontin, but not before it created some semi- permanent aftereffects I would have to deal with later. We came to believe that Jamie was living in this sort of altered reality and her behavior became more and more bizarre as time went on.
While all of this was happening we launched Emerging Worlds. Jamie put up some additional funds to promote it to the cultural creatives that they studies had identified. The result was less than spectacular. I started to question the research. There were other reasons this result was occurring in the later part of 2000 that had to do with the crash of 2001 coming up, but that was yet to reveal itself fully.
When I got a hold of the questions that had been asked in the survey’s identifying cultural creatives, I realized the studies had been rigged. They had asked questions that could only lead to the identification of this audience group. This was done to support the big industry that had built up around this notion. The research was flawed and we were left with not knowing how to find an audience that would be interested in what we were offering on Emerging Worlds.
Everyone remembers where they were that day. I certainly do.
I had gotten up early that morning when I got a phone call from my brother. It was very early so this had the earmarking’s of some problem. He just said… “do you have the TV on” I said no… he continued… “turn it on, it’s bad.” As the pictures on our big screen came into view we saw the now iconic images of the first World Trade tower on fire in New York. A plane had crashed into it.
The World Trade Towers were some place I had frequented when I was at Time Warner. I thought at the time they were incredibly tall monuments to someone’s greed. As I rode the elevators to the top of the towers I felt the building sway in the wind. There was an uncomfortable feeling being there.
At the point we joined this global event the details were still sketchy, but as we watched the second airplane hit the other tower and exploded in flame. We knew then this was not a simple plane crash. Then the news of the Pentagon getting hit was announced and the fourth plane was shot down by our air force as it headed back towards Washington D.C.
Things were happening so fast, you just didn’t know where it was going. As I mentioned previously, we had a Naval airbase on the north end of the island that was home to the Navy’s intelligence wing. That meant these “pathfinder” aircraft would fly over our house as they were being deployed somewhere in the world. We could set our watches by them. Roughly two weeks after they flew over our house, we would be engaged in some military strike somewhere. These pathfinders were always the first in. This day the 911 event had already happened as they flew low and fast over Redtail farm, but who knew what was coming.
We eventually were witnesses to the towers collapsing “live.” I remember the commentator standing with his back to the smoking towers getting this weird look on his face when he realized from his cameraman that something was happening behind him. We all watched together. I had friends in New York and it would be weeks before we talked. They eventually told us all the now familiar tales of a city inundated by smoke and ash. The fear factor was everywhere. Were there more attacks coming? Were we at war with an unseen foe? We stayed glued to the TV for a couple of days in shock.
These events also spawned a variety of conspiracy stories about what had actually happened. Anyone that witnessed the towers collapse was reminded of the controlled demolition films of old buildings being taken down. The towers collapsed neatly in their own footprint. It was hard to believe there wasn’t more to it.
In addition, we had experienced a very close presidential election in 2000. George W Bush had “won” by 781 votes in Florida. The county was torn apart in the aftermath. Certainly you could make the argument that the one thing that can unite people is defining a common foe and going to war. I remember saying at the time of the election that W, Chaney and company was going to need something to get by the questionable results. And here we were.
As a result of 9-11, America went on a war time footing, security measures were increased across the board. We launched two attacks on the Taliban/ al-Qaeda in Afghanistan who had some connection to the Saudi hijackers. Then on to Iraq that had no proven connection to the group that committed this act. Many safe guards against abuses of power by the government and the military were relaxed. It seemed like American’s were so out for revenge we would approve of anything. Even believe the lies about WMD’s that led to the war in Iraq.
We’ve had a number of years to sit with these stories. For me, like the Kennedy assassination, I found some of these alternative theories very plausible. In addition to the way the towers fell, there was just so much that went “wrong” that day with the system that was supposed to protect us against terrorist attacks. So many signs seemed to be ignored. Was this on purpose? Bush didn’t even seem shocked when they told him about the attack as he read to school children. Some day in the future maybe answers will be revealed after everyone involved has died.
The impact of 9-11 obviously changed the world. It would never feel the same. Even when it was revealed that our Iraq invasion was based on a known lie about weapons of mass destruction, it would not end the cavalcade of events that continue to happen in the Middle East and elsewhere.
It also set the stage for permission to make stuff up. These lies were designed to get the American people to support you, support the rise of Fox News etc. Democracies rely on citizens having good sources of information on which to make their decisions. False news on all fronts had become so much of a norm that it was hard to predict where this all was leading. Like all disasters, eventually the events fade and you find a way to move on with life, but at what cost.
One side light of the 911 experience for me was the emergence of new music. I had mostly gotten my guitar out on Whidbey when I was riffing with a group of Island poets. We had played around with some spoken word poems against my music pieces that we performed in public.
It was interesting performing again in that way. It felt strange yet familiar. So my music was out of the case, but I was not writing new songs.
There were a number of stories after 9-11 about artists being driven to create something. Not so surprising. Everyone processes things differently and artists tend to do it through artistic expressions. About two weeks after 9-11 I had a very vivid dream where I was looking at a page of written words. At first it looked like a poem. I woke up with a start. As I had done in my old song writing days, I quickly wrote the words down before I forgot them. When I showed them to Jennifer, she said “I think it’s a song” and proceeded to hum a melodic line. Something clicked, I got my guitar out and in quick order wrote a new song called… “A Thousand Different Towns.”
This subject and song title did not come entirely out of nowhere. After the 9-11 event, lots of people were writing and reflecting and one of those was a spiritual philosopher we liked named David Spangler.
He had created a transmission that postulated that the 3,000+ people who died, including the folks on the planes, had made a sacrifice for all of us. We all were in debt to these souls “from a thousand different towns.”
As I finished the recording of the song in my home studio, other pieces of music that I had played with in the past began to resonate. I was looking at them in a new light all these years later. Each was some microcosm of some incident in my prior life, some joyous, some bitter sweet.
I became obsessed (a distraction from our world crashing I think) and for the next three months I spent hours in my studio trying to get down some version of what I was hearing. The results were interesting. It was a full circle exercise of getting back to just me and my guitar. It reminded me how much I loved writing and although I had no thought of doing anything with these songs, it bought me pleasure in a challenging time. My voice all these years later had a much more mature, authentic sound to it. I wasn’t trying to be anything other than the conduit for whatever this music wanted of me. You can listen to the results in the body of work section under Music – Storycatcher 2012.
While I was on Whidbey trying to sort out the convergence media work, this old theme of “storycatching” re-emerged. My friend David Sibbet and I had created the first of these “story studios” when we were bringing the Headlands Center for the Arts into the world. Storycatching was my way of visually capturing and mapping the stories the group was telling about the now and future and identifying the common themes. These themes contained clues to the future we were imagining. If we could map those, perhaps there was a way to bring them into the world as an alternative to the dystopian stories we mostly told in our films and television. We also had used a version of the process at the Beaver Creek Gatherings.
As I developed convergence media platforms like Emerging Worlds I was piggybacking on the rating systems that were evolving on Amazon and other sites. These ratings represented some slice of our collective intelligence about something. I began looking into predictive systems and found lots of experiments that had been done with seemingly impossible results. One of the classic ones was having a group guess how many jelly beans were in a jar. There were hundreds and there was no way anyone could actually count them. You had to visually estimate how many.
In these experiments a bell shaped curve of responses resulted with the lowest numbers on the left side of the curve and the same on the right side. In the middle was this big spike of responses that made up the bulge of the bell curve. It turned out that when you averaged the guesses in the middle, they got within 6 or so jelly beans of the actual total. These seemingly random guesses had a collective result that predicted the correct answer. This experiment was tried with many groups just to ensure it was not a onetime result. It wasn’t.
There were other cases where the Navy had used a similar process to locate a lost atom bomb that had gone down with a bomber at sea. The bomber had been outbound from Spain when it broke off contact and disappeared. It was assumed that it had crashed.
For a while, the Navy conducted its normal salvage efforts, but the bomber was not where it was supposed to be. Finally, the Navy assembled a group of diverse people from different work disciplines that had no knowledge of what had been tried so far. The individuals in the group went to work on the existing data in whatever way made sense to them and made a guess at the bombers location.
It turned out when these guesses were averaged, it pointed to a location that had not been searched. This was because it was assumed the bomber had continued forward when it got in trouble and would lie west of its last reported position. It turned out the collective guess of these new people postulated that the bomber had turned around. The bomber and bomb were found near the coordinates the group developed.
There was also a fun example that came out of Hollywood. In the old days seasoned pundits would guess which movies would do well, based on a number of factors. This was considered secret information and very valuable. With the emergence of the Internet and all the audience portals that rated movies, someone devised a “stock market” platform, where people could buy stock in the future results of certain movies.
There was actual money involved, if you picked a winner early. You bought it at a lower price before it was released, and if the stock price jumped as a result of a strong opening, you made some money. What emerged from this predictive stock market system were public results that began to influence the studios about titles, release schedules and promotional budgets based on the collective perspectives of which movie stocks people were buying.
All this to say, there is a predictive, collective quality in the stories we tell about the future. If you can identify the themes that emerge you may have somewhat of a crystal ball about the future. I pulled this concept into the storycatching process and sat on Whidbey during this time drawing hundreds of maps and diagrams trying to create a predictive system that would do this. I didn’t realize at the time I was missing a critical piece that would come to me much later in Boulder. That piece would take my storycatching process to a whole new level.
During this time Jennifer and I (sometimes Matt) began to visit Crestone in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. Jennifer had friends there that had bought a very large parcel of land and offered low cost real estate to different spiritual orders to build retreat centers. The idea was that the cross-pollination between the different faiths would model a universal coming together. Some of these retreat centers were absolutely 5 star beautiful.
One Buddhist order also built a three story Stupa there and claimed it was connected through the earth to sacred sites in Tibet.
It became one of my favorite spots to meditate. The Crestone area was also home to lots of hot springs and there was one in particular that we really liked for its lithium water. Jennifer would later help them expand the hot tub center into more of an upscale wellness destination.
The Drum Carrier
On one visit we met an Intuit drum carrier medicine man. Angaangaq was a powerful presence. He had traveled all over and addressed the UN on what he experienced when witnessing the ice melting in the north. This was in 2001.
One night he took us out into the fields with his drum. With it he literally opened a portal to an altered state with no drugs required. I’ve never understood how he did it. It was other worldly. He became a valued friend and visited us on Whidbey. I asked him if he would do what he did in the field so I could record it. I turned on my tape machines. It was mind blowing as he was doing it, and when I played the tape back afterwards, the entire house resonated. The power and sacredness of sound fully realized.
We also saw some unfortunate interactions with young native men in Crestone that had been brought from the Amazon to lead Ayahuasca ceremonies. In the early part of the new century, Ayahuasca had become the drug of choice in New Age circles to expand one’s awareness. White people in particular found it useful to go deeper into themselves and spirit.
This particular trip we walked into a house where there were jars of Ayahuasca just laying around. No ceremony was taking place. Angaangaq was very disturbed. He put the jars away. It made us all feel uncomfortable, sort of like when the drug experiments got out of hand at Esalan in the 80’s. In addition, the hosts took the young men to Target and bought them all kinds of modern technology to take back with them. No understanding apparently how these modern devices might upset the balance of their native culture.
I heard later that one of the young men did not go back to the Amazon, but stayed on in the US and became a filmmaker. I would run into him later when I was doing a project on the Hopi reservation. I guess you can never predict where these things go sometimes. This odd behavior among whites became a common theme within the New Age spiritual communities. They would romanticize native culture and pervert it with their own modern biases. I got a strong personal lesson on this when I would later do a storycatching project on the Hopi reservation.
Jennifer, Me and Matt
Island life was very enjoyable, even though it seemed far away from the America. The small town fairs, village gatherings and many events at the Whidbey Institute were a rich change from all those years in the city. My family visited and Jennifer had all her family right at hand. We built a big garden, became overwhelmed by how much land we had to take care off and participated in coop food buying circles. Always in search of the ever illusive community.
Matthew however, as much as he loved the island, was still struggling with school. Little league was also a challenge for him and the more time that went by the fish out of water in him emerged.
This wasn’t all bad. I had been a bit of the same when I was his age and that very unique view of things later fueled a very interesting adult life for me. He also had his cousins to play with and many times we spent hours in front of our big screen TV playing video games.
However, as things got more tense financially, Jennifer and I had more trouble managing our emotions. I think I felt that the world was beginning to close in and felt powerless to do anything about it. Never a good place for me to be in. And Jennifer’s first focus was Matt, trying to help him feel better about himself. We did not seem adept at facing the financial challenges together.
One of the interesting history points about the Redtail Farm property was that it had been the site of a local Native American kitchen. As the story went the local natives used to go down to the cove below and bring up the famous Coupleville oysters and shuck them where our house was built.
There were a number of times I encountered strange spirits when I would do my outdoor ceremonies. I had learned the Lakota tradition of prayer ties. This involved wrapping tobacco in tiny bundles of red cloth and saying a prayer after making each one. These prayer ties were then strung together and burned in ceremony, releasing the prayers to the heavens. We certainly had a lot we were praying for and they also seem to attract some unseen guests.
Matt had never been comfortable in his room. This was not a new issue. In Laguna he would now and again want to sleep with us. He would wake us up to tell us so. His room in that house was downstairs from us and we wrote it off to bad bedroom placement. But in the Redtail house he was right down the hall from us.
Sometimes we would catch him clutching his samurai sword as he tried to go to sleep. Jennifer and Matt had befriended some local tribal people, one medicine man in particular. We’d had other medicine carrier’s visit us and they too would sense some darkness in the house. I normally didn’t pay a lot of attention to ghost stories, but this was adding up, plus I had my own experiences. The house itself, as it turned out, had some troubled history of its own. The former owner’s wife had committed suicide in town after a painful relationship in our house. Jennifer and I certainly fought more in this house as well. In addition to what was happening to us, something was stirring things up, not in a good way.
The local medicine man visited and walked all around the property. He sat us down and explained the native story we already knew and added that this was their land. He was particularly concerned about the effect it was having on Matthew. Matt had a history of being recognized as unique by spiritual leaders and healers. This time the medicine man asked Matt to help him clear the house of these spirits.
He arrived with an entourage of family members in tow. The young men that were his assistants were dressed in a particular native garb. The clearing required that we offer a huge feast of food at the end to reward the spirits for leaving. The women brought the dishes and bowls that we filled with food. The medicine man warned us if dark spirits were present, there would be a lot of loud conversation, chanting and rattling as they were encouraged to leave. The one place they focused mostly on was an area under the stairs to the basement. The sounds that emerged as they engaged were frightening. In the end, the clearing was declared successful and life returned to somewhat normal. I am not sure to this day, if it really was cleared, but the incidents surely lessened.
All of our activity on Whidbey was designed to shape a different kind of life that felt more whole. I learned however, that the light is never present without some darkness. The creative tension between the two would definitely shape our experience going forward. And although I believe the universe does look out for us some, it's not always in the ways we anticipate or think we deserve.
As our financial reserves dwindled and Emerging Worlds was not earning much, I put Plan B into effect. When we had made the decision to come to Whidbey I reasoned that if things went south I could work for software companies in Seattle. While at Time Warner I’d had a lot of dealings with Microsoft, Nintendo and others. I put my resume out there and got a couple of bites. I guess it still had some juice in it.
The first was a classic game company called Sierra Entertainment.
They had been around since the beginning of the game business and had also developed some lifestyle products. They, like everyone else, were convinced the Internet was the new distribution medium and were trying to develop a lifestyle web portal they named Livango.
They hired me to help them design it and develop content for it. It took me back into corporate environments with lots of voices impeding any real work getting done. But the work paid well and for a while it kept us afloat, along with a bunch of smaller consultant projects that Jennifer worked on.
The other project was truly a convergence play. Scripps Networks had pioneered the HGTV cable channel that offered lifestyle programming and went on to wild success with the Cooking Channel as well.
They were looking to develop a new television channel that would offer personal development programming called the DIY Network. It included the topic of health that Jennifer and I had a lot of experience with. I worked with the corporate headquarters team in Knoxville Tennessee, sometimes in person and sometimes remotely from Whidbey.
This project was interesting to me because they wanted to use television to promote their offerings to very big viewing audiences and then offer the deeper dives on the Internet portal. This big audience it was assumed would spend money at the Internet portal on personal development items like books, retreats and web courses. As the project progressed however, it became more and more the lifestyles of the rich and famous, which was much less interesting to me.
As a result I never had any illusion that I would try to run the channel when it launched, so when they put the hub in LA I really wasn’t interested. We flew down to LA to meet with the operational team that would launch the property. Their director was a very flashy LA type that thought he knew everything. I had some fantasy about creating programing for the new channel, but it became clear his idea of programming was fantasy pieces about driving fast cars. Another potential avenue out our mess, closed off.
The Bubble Bursts (2001)
Throughout its rapid rise, the Internet and all its parts were over hyped. Everyone sensed it. The financial community however was so keen on its promise they put huge amounts of money into sites like pets.com and other flash in the pan ideas.
The joke was that you could write up a business plan on the back of a paper bag and if it included some Internet strategy it would get funded. I had been through this before with Interactive Entertainment. Originally it was seen as a multi-media play with all kinds of different educational, training and gaming applications. Games were the only thing that really came out of it after all the effort.
I was continuing my work at Sierra with this in mind. I knew some correction was coming, but what I didn’t realize is how severe it would be. Narratives can change quickly and after it was discovered that many of these Internet portals were not making much or any money, even if people were visiting them, almost overnight the pundits began talking about a crash.
Our money was still locked up in Emerging Worlds, so when the change did come, we were majorly effected. Sierra for example was a big company, so I reasoned that in a down turn they would weather it until something new arose. Instead they went out of business in 3 months. My cash cow was gone and I had nothing to replace it with. All over the industry this was happening. It was a blood bath and not one where you could still find Internet content and TV work.
Our personal stake in all of this was also shaky. Even if I considered returning to Hollywood, I had no idea what I would do there. Eventually Google, Amazon and later Facebook would eventually emerge, so the crash turned out not to be the end of the Internet, but for us the end on Whidbey was coming quickly.
When we had exhausted all our credit and were still barely afloat, the troubles between Jennifer and I increased. We, each in our own way, were in deep denial that our dream was ending. That sense of entitlement that so permeated our existence continued to influence us into thinking help was right around the corner. Instead of looking at how we could bring our lives into a soft landing and try to reboot somewhere else, we drifted further and further apart. We didn’t seem capable of facing the crisis together.
I took a trip to the Bay Area in our VW Vanagon to scout possible employment. I called in a lot of favors from past lives and it looked like there was just enough to keep me going until I could figure out what was really next.
There are different stories on what happened next depending on who you ask, but for my part I gave Jennifer an ultimatum that either we deal with this head on or I was headed south. Her family could help her clean up the mess.
Even as I write this I feel the sadness in it. I was in some sense abandoning Jennifer and Matt, but at the time it felt like if I didn’t do something different I could literally die. This still does not relieve me of my part in this nightmare. I declared bankruptcy which dealt with some of creditors, but couldn’t save us on Whidbey. It got more and more bizarre as I packed my stuff into an RV we had bought some time back.
I was so sick of this big life turned bad, I welcomed the small confines of the RV and headed south. I had gone from full abundance to alone and down to my last dollars in five years. Staggering when I think about it now. At the time in spite of all of it, I just assumed something would open up. That something would take a while. And what it meant to Jennifer, Matt and I was still yet to be revealed.