Chapter 12 - Finding My Way Back
As I drove south with all my stuff in the RV I had a companion. At some point on Whidbey we got pets. A giant Akita named Bodie was first. He was a sweet soul, but he became so big that he threatened Matthews’s safety. (we found a better home for him)
We also adopted three cats. Zephyr, Baby Kitty and Garfield…
We had gone to the local humane society looking for a cat for Matt. Something more his size that Bodie. He picked a beautiful Maine Coon he named Garfield. He was about a year old. Jennifer was so enamored with this Maine Coon she told the shelter people if they ever got another one, to call us. Not long after, the call came that a tiny Maine Coon kitten had wandered into a power station, obviously separated from its mother. He was so small you could hold him in the palm of your hand. We had no idea how Garfield would take to him, but when we brought him home, Garfield put his paw around him and a father-son relationship began that would last more than 20 years. The new arrival was dubbed “Baby Kitty.” We thought we would change it later. We never did.
The last thing I wanted however was a cat of my own. But as we walked through the cages one day a grey, white, black… green eyed kitty reached his paw towards me, begging for me to get him out of there.
I watched him for a while and he did all kinds of seductive moves to get my attention. He seemed very sad when I turned away. We came back again later and by this time he was in an outside cage where I could interact with him. He seemed really intelligent, quite a talker and he won my heart. I named him Zephyr because in a sense he had blown into my life.
When I went south Zephyr went with me. He would ride in the big front window of the RV. When we parked in public places and I went shopping, I would come out and find a crowd at the window being totally entertained by him. I quickly came to believe he was a cat trying out to be human in his next life. But seriously, he became my welcome companion when the world turned cold. We had many hair raising adventures together over the next couple of years.
For example, as we drove late at night through some redwood groves on a northern California freeway, a big deer came out of nowhere. Zephyr was curled up on a Captains chair in the middle of the RV. I slammed on the brakes and Zephyr came flying through the air making a screeching noise like a cartoon character. He landed on the dashboard in a heap. We did hit the deer, but it just stood up and walked off. Zephyr was traumatized. He would not come up in the front of the RV for six months.
When I opened up to coming back into the real world, one of the people I contacted was my old friend David Sibbet.
David and I had done a lot of good work together and by this time David’s agency called “The Grove” had grown to over 25 people. They were doing David’s visual memory process as part of their corporate consulting. They had big clients like Stanford University and the city of San Francisco.
David had always been interested in my storycatching work and he thought it might be a welcome addition to the services they offered. He offered me a position. (did not pay a lot) Because I was living out of my RV, my expenses were low, so it was a start. David’s offices were in the Presidio, another ex-Army base run now by the GGNRA.
The Presidio at that point had all these old parade grounds and parking lots where I could park the RV overnight without being hassled. When I needed to get the batteries charged I could run a line from David’s offices to the RV until the batteries were full. It seemed like just the safe harbor I needed to sort things out.
The Insight Bowl
One of the fun things Bruce, Matt and I did during the RV adventure was go to the Insight Bowl. This was Cal's first post season playoff football game in a long time against Virginia Tech. The Bears had been terrible for years, so the fact they were going to any bowl was something we couldn’t miss. I picked Matt up in Tucson in the RV and Bruce flew into Phoenix.
The game was being played in the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball stadium so our seats were very high up looking down. Kind of strange. Matt was wide eyed. He had never been to a football game before and the crowd for this one was ramped up. Cal’s opponent Virginia Tech. (the Hokies) had their supporters in a section to our right. When Tech got off to a good start and the Bears were struggling, they started yelling us. As Cal came back, Matt started yelling at them. It was hysterical and Cal won the game on a field goal kick as time ran out. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
I mentioned before that when Jennifer and I were doing our stealth virus “treatments” I had taken a drug called Neurontin for a while. I had stopped taking it sometime before I came south, but there were some residual effects that I was not completely aware of at that point. I had always been outspoken and opinionated when I thought I had some perspective that was useful or right, but as I worked with David’s Grove staff, I began blurting out thoughts. Ones that I would have normally kept to myself, particularly if they were critical.
I was in the middle of this state so it was hard for me to pick it up, but some instances occurred with David, the staff and even with Grove clients where I just blurted out something entirely inappropriate at that moment. It was like I didn’t have that moment of reflection before I spoke anymore. This was not a good thing and caused friction with David, and rightly so. I was not being helpful.
As this was unfolding, I met a very smart young tech guy that had a company called Triadym. They were consulting on one of the Grove projects. He reminded me of my partner David Todd in Hollywood days. He and I got talking about the storycatching process and how a version of it could be modeled into an Internet investigative game. Sort of like the Toy Story project on steroids. He did some preliminary tests of some of my ideas and we both got excited.
Another thing happened as my time at The Grove was coming to an end that ended up being the real reason I think I was there. As I keep saying, you never know what will come from taking a first step and this was one of those times.
David had come back from some conference he was facilitating with a DVD in his hand. He told me about this young documentary filmmaker he had met there who had this idea for a reality television series. He had promised him he would show it to me for some advice. Now this can be an uncomfortable position to be in. Many times in my Hollywood days someone would give some music or game idea that one of their kids had done as ask me to give them advice. Usually they were terrible, and then the dilemma would arrive of what to say that wouldn’t crush them.
In this case I didn’t look at the DVD right away. I got busy and forgot about it. David came back to me three weeks later and asked again as a favor. I looked at the ten minute clip that night and although it was very crude, the filmmakers gorilla shooting style and the outrageous idea he and his street Shaman partner had to save the world one person at a time had real promise.
At this point I had been out of Hollywood for six years and my network from that time had mostly moved on. I didn’t know what to suggest so I simply wrote John Chester (the filmmaker) an email and told him not to give up on his concept. It needed work and I had no idea how you would get something that was in sense was a reality show that celebrated the best of human behavior on cable TV. I sent the email anyway.
John would tell the story later… the afternoon before my email arrived he had told Molly his producing partner that he was giving up pitching the concept. My email arriving that night however was a sign to him that maybe there was something to it. Nothing happened immediately at that point because I was embroiled in leaving The Grove and going to Triadym to develop the Internet investigative game I was excited about.
One last RV note. I could not park my RV at the Presidio if I didn’t work at The Grove. Triadym had corporate offices downtown in a high rise building. No place to house the RV there, particularly when I was living in it with Zephyr.
San Francisco had a famous waterfront that stretched from Fisherman’s wharf south. All these covered piers had been built in the heyday of fancy ocean liners and cargo ships. The cargo ships had moved across the bay to Oakland, the passenger ships replaced by airplanes. The piers were now home to all sorts of enterprises from artist studios to trucking firms. I had a friend who knew someone who managed one of these piers and I went to talk to him about parking and living in the RV there.
It turned out I couldn’t park inside, but outside the covered shed was an open dock area where I could squeeze the RV and run power from inside. It also had this magnificent view of San Francisco Bay and was just walking distance from Triadym. It was a bizarre existence at night. The piers would mostly shut down and I would be left with the sound of the fog horns resounding off the tall buildings. It seemed a long way from Whidbey, but this was an adventure right?
What Was Left
During this time Jennifer with the help of her family had closed out the Whidbey house, loaded her stuff in another RV we had purchased and somehow got to Tuscan Arizona. She got a job consulting with a five star spa called Miraval. They wanted to become more of a wellness center.
Her family really stepped up and helped her get to her next stop. I don’t remember if we talked much then. I was aware of her move and thankful that she and Matt were safe, but my brain and heart were still scrambled by the trauma of Whidbey and I was in no hurry to connect yet.
The Dock Life and RV Parks
The SF waterfront was a very interesting place. You could get anywhere on the street cars pretty quickly. In 2000, the San Francisco Giants built a beautiful new baseball park near the site of the old Seal Stadium that our Dad had taken us to. Compared to the old Candlestick stadium it was a baseball temple. In the days I was there in 2003, the Giants had not caught fire yet, like they would later. (winning three World Series in five years) You could get a ticket almost any night. Even though the Giants were not very good they had great players like the controversial slugger Barry Bonds.
I remember one warm October night I walked down to the park and inquired about tickets for the game. It turned out I could get a seat right behind home plate in the VIP section for not much money. I settled into my seat just as Bonds was coming up for the first time. My vantage point was right behind him. I could almost touch him. I watched as the pitches came sizzling in. In didn’t take long before he got a hold of one and drove it into the Center field seats. A monster shot. The sound of the bat striking the ball was like an explosion being that close.
Later that night he came up again. He was so on top of his game that it was expected he could hit a home run every time up. This at bat he smoked the first pitch, as if it was preordained, over the right field wall into the McCovey cove outside the park. He would go on to break the home run record in 2007 and endure all the talk about him cheating by taking steroids, but that night I was sitting behind him when he did his thing.
A great thing about RV’s is that you can drive your “home” almost anywhere. Once you get into RV life you discover there is a whole world of people and RV parks in some of the most beautiful places. San Francisco for some reason did not have a park, but I would drive out on the weekends to Marin county and one of my favorite RV parks at Olema, just a few miles from Point Reyes.
The park was wooded, walking distance from a very good restaurant and bar and a short drive to the beaches north of San Francisco. I went out there quite a bit as well as visited other RV parks up and down the California northern coast while I worked in San Francisco. I would sit on my RV sofa and look out at the redwoods, the smell of nature in the air. For a while it was the perfect resting place as I tried to heal the trauma of Whidbey.
I connected with old friends as well. Claytie Mason visited some times. We had a wonderful time hiking the trails to the beaches. I also re-connected with Jessica Britt now that she was living in Santa Cruz. I would drive south sometimes and stay at an RV park there and we would buddy up as friends, a welcome respite.
I don’t remember the exact date, but I was driving on the Bay Bridge headed towards Oakland when my mother called and said she had been bleeding all night. I asked how much, and she said she had soaked all the towels in the house. This was a pattern with her. She either didn’t want to bother anybody or was in some form of denial. Bruce and Jane rallied and got her to the doctors and it was discovered she had bladder cancer. She had never really been sick in her life that I could remember. She said the only time she was in the hospital was to birth us.
This began a journey for her that would wind its way through two cancer episodes. It would challenge her and us to deal with the fact her body was failing her. She made it through the first operation okay, and now had to live life with a colostomy bag. This bag would route her urine into a bag that attached at her hip. It was livable, but a real pain to deal with. She did recover though and went back to life in Alameda.
Later she would have a second round and this was the time she began talking about not wanting to live like this anymore. One afternoon as I sat by her bed in the hospital in the warm afternoon light, she turned to me and asked me to go get her the “death” pill. She’d had enough. Obviously there was no such thing, but I remember thinking, what if there was, would I give it to her? Who exactly was I talking to? She drifted off again and then in a semi-conscious state raised her hands to the ceiling as if she was asking someone to pull her up and out. I really thought that would be the afternoon she would die, but we were interrupted by nurses taking her for a scan. As she was wheeled back into her room where I was, her whole demeanor had changed. She was bright and smiling and she took my hand and said “it’s going to be all right”.
There is more to this story as she continued to recover, but I will get into that later.
Cory and I came up with a demo of the Internet game I designed called XPORIA. It utilized a second browser super imposed over the real one to add a layer of graphics and text that looked like they were a part of the real web site. This investigation tool allowed me to create a story on a number of real web sites. The player would have to visit these web sites to discover the clues we had visible in the special overlaid browser. We did not have to ask permission of the site because we were actually not touching them. Cory did a brilliant job making it look seamless
The concept would monetize from the visits our players would make to the real sites. We would let it run for a week for free, they would notice a jump in traffic and then we would discuss fees for continuing to drive traffic to them. I showed the concept to Electronic Arts and others in the Bay Area and though there was interest, no one really believed it would monetize in the way I claimed. I thought at the time, it was one of the best concepts I had ever come up with that never made it to market.
Cory traveled quite a bit on business, so I was left in the Triadym corporate office pretty much with the secretaries. It wasn’t the most creative environment. Also, developing the Xporia concept could be done anywhere that was connected to the Net. I started to think about changing locations. I called my old friend David Todd who was still running his Mass Media game group in Thousand Oaks outside of LA. A bunch of his staff were holdovers from when we had been together at Phillps POV. I asked him if I could work out of his offices and park the RV behind his building. He said it would be great to see me again and this began a period where David helped me quite a bit.
Corey was fine with the move, because Mass Media had game development resources we could utilize. I headed south and reconnected with my old friend Cliff Branch in San Luis Obispo along the way. He had a field next to his house where I could park the RV. Remember at this point I didn’t have a car yet.
I was thankful for David’s hospitality, but it was somewhat weird returning to the scene of our many crimes. Joyce still also lived in the house we bought and remodeled. She was also very kind to me. I’m not sure she knew what to make of me in the RV, but she would make space as the girls would come in and out, although Sevrin was mostly in New York. But let me back up a minute and re-enter Sevrin’s world.
After her successful drama audition, Sevrin was accepted to Boston University in the drama program. This was one of the most competitive programs in the country. Of the freshman class that entered, only half would make the cut at the end of their sophomore year. It was a huge amount of pressure. From time to time I would check in to take her temperature. She was always hot. She made the cut at the end of sophomore year and proceeded to take advantage of all the connections BU had to the New York theater scene. That meant talent scouts would be in the audience when they performed their college plays. Sevrin graduated with honors in 2001. Joyce, Claytie and I went, although there was no real family unit vibe to it.
It was a glorious day watching Sevrin achieve the first part of her dream. By this point, Joyce and I could talk about what a miracle it was and how it had taken all of us to help her make it happen. It made me feel like I had actually made some contribution to her life as opposed to all the considerable drama.
Sevrin immediately went to New York and joined the thousands of other theater hopefuls trying to make their mark. Her Boston University connections helped for a while, but we all assumed she would begin at the bottom and hopefully work her way up to off Broadway productions and then maybe something on Broadway. Talented actors wait their whole lives for breaks sometimes.
That is why her phone call to me was such a surprise. She was calling to say she’d done an audition for an ON Broadway play. It was a revival of the classic tale of the Salem witch hunts entitled “The Crucible.” Liam Neeson and Laura Linney had committed to play the leads.
She was calling to say the audition seemed to go well. She was up for a small, but significant part as the nurse to the family. She had some big scenes and dialogue with the leads. I just thought it was great she got the audition, but two days later she called back hysterical… she had gotten the part. From college to Broadway in six months, Wow!!! She had to get an agent, and rehearsals would start soon. The play opened in 2002.
Sometimes when you have big stars in the mix it can be hard on the secondary players, but in this case Sevrin got lucky. The cast with Liam and Laura as the leads bonded as a family and she had lots of support as opening night came. She only had two tickets in a sold out house so Joyce and Claytie went with the understanding that I would go for closing night of the run.
The play got good reviews and I would hear from Sevrin occasionally in the middle of the whirl of being on Broadway. Closing night came some months later and I made my way to New York to be present. I knew the town because of all my Time Warner work, but Broadway was still somewhat of a mystery to me. I decided after checking into my hotel that I would walk down to Broadway and locate the theater. As I turned the corner to the theater I was struck by a five story promotion for the Crucible on its side of the wall. It depicted one of the scenes Sevrin was in. I was staring at a five story likeness of this eight year old that had crawled up in my lap all those years ago and said she was going to be an actress. Indeed!!!
I settled into my seat still not believing I was about to watch Sevrin act on Broadway.
All those family skits and the endless school productions had led her here. The production was suburb and I went backstage as everyone said goodbye. Sevrin was great in introducing me to this Crucible family of actors.
Sevrin and I went out that night to dinner and it seemed like a fitting closure for all we had been through. I couldn’t have been more proud of her. To make it through the toughest of times and come out on the other side in the middle of her dream was miraculous. It just doesn’t happen that much. For all the newbies that come to New York and never get anywhere near Broadway in a lifetime, Sevrin had made the jump in a year. There was more to come, but in this moment this felt like a fairy tale come true and a moment we could truly share in our love of stories…
After high school and before she decided to go to Washington University, Claytie enrolled in a private theater college program in northern California. She has some thoughts about being an actor, but really what attracted her was writing. This small college was all about that.
We also met up when she was working for her mother in Las Vegas. Love these images of the Elvis impersonator sky divers.
We all met up again for her graduation.
It was only the beginning of Claytie’s creative career as a playwright.
I settled into the space David Todd provided for me a Mass Media. It felt good to be back in the company of a production team after the time alone. John Chester continued to develop this TV series of his called Random 1. John came out to LA to pitch to somebody and connect with me. I had never met him in person. He arrived with his partner, Andre the street shaman. They were taken by my RV. The show called for producers to be in a studio space fielding what was coming in from the street crew, but John liked the idea of them being in an RV. Later we would get a very high priced one donated to the show.
I had been racking my brain to think of who I still knew that might be able to help John. I had talked to my former CFO at Time Warner, Brian Altuonian and asked him about his network. He finally came up with a name. Tim Kaiser. Tim had been a producer on Seinfeld and was now the show runner on another show on the MTM lot. The only issue was he was a comedy expert not a reality show guy.
Out of desperation, John sent the demo over to Tim and then we took a meeting at the CBS television lot.
What I learned right away about John in person was that he was fearless. Usually when you are starting out with minimum credits, you hope anything you have will get made. John did not seem overwhelmed and presented with confidence. This would be noticed by everyone that would engage with the show over the next couple of years.
Tim loved the concept and said he was in. He promised to call the cable networks. He would get us in front of the proper folks. We all went out the door floating. This seemed really easy. Only problem was Tim did none of those things. He remained supportive and in some weird way was a small part of selling the series to A&E, but quickly John and all of us were back at square one.
The Bible Game
Meanwhile Triadym was continuing to pay me to develop the Internet game, but we were not making much progress. No one had the appetite to take a risk given the state of the Internet. Triadym eventually threw in the towel. David and I talked about it and he made a suggestion. He had a game based on bible stories (no joke) that Mass Media was creating. If I was willing, he would pay me to produce it. Random 1 was still poking along in development so this was a god send. I set about designing a Bible Game and then the next lesson came knocking. You can never go back…
David still had some producers I had hired and directed at POV. One in particular was a good friend, David White. We had won the Best Sports Game - Interactive Academy Award together.
But David had always worked for me. In the time I was away, he had progressed to be one of Mass Media’s lead producers, and it turned out he was not completely crazy about me coming back. He was concerned that somehow I would overshadow him.
Even though I had really no interest in producing more games in the long term, I understood his concern.
The other issue was more subtle. David Todd and I had been equal partners at Cinemaware and POV. My big self was balanced by his calmer demeanor. We pushed each other and I had always felt we did excellent work as a team.
The more time I spent at Mass Media, I started to feel that David was playing it safe. It seemed it had become more about a paycheck and royalties to him. I thought in some ways he was wasting his talent taking the small view. Now, let’s be clear… he was successful all those years keeping Mass Media going, so who am I to say he was near sighted. It was never said, but the creative tension was his worry that I would disrupt what he was doing. He ran Mass Media his way and I was rightly not a part of that. To David’s great credit he never let this alter his commitment to me. I finished the Bible game successfully, but it was clear, this gaming work was not part of the road back…
After we crashed on Whidbey, Jennifer and I had headed out in our respective RV’s. Me to the Bay Area, she and Matt to Tucson. I don’t remember how it started, but we reconnected by phone after a while. I still really loved her in spite of what happened to us on Whidbey. This led to us meeting at RV parks somewhere in between LA and Tucson.
We rekindled our relationship and Matt was growing up. Jennifer was doing well in her new job at Miraval, even though she had to navigate the boys club she worked with. A lot was happening in the alternative health realm and she was bringing that to the wellness program she designed for Miravel. I even went to Tucson a couple of times and got to see Miraval’s inside operation. In the middle of what I thought was an ugly desert town, Miraval was an oasis for the rich and famous. When you walked in, the dust and the dreariness of Tucson fell away and you were suddenly in the Garden of Eden. If you could afford it.
All that began to change with a telephone call. I was running around LA when Jennifer called me. I could hardly understand what she was saying. She seemed really disoriented and that scared me. She said she was at a mall with no idea of how to get home. Fortunately Ed her ex was in Tucson, so I called him and we figured out where she was.
Ed took her to the hospital and covered Matt. Jennifer was very sick. It turned out she had backed into a cactus thorn that had penetrated deep into her heal. In desert areas like Tucson, there is something they call Valley Fever in the dust on the plants. She had gotten a strong dose and this in turn had turned into pneumonia. Ed and I continued to talk about me coming out. As Jennifer lay comatose in the hospital a piece of work she had been doing came into play.
She had been researching a variety of bio-feedback systems for Miraval that were showing some good results in treatment. Many of them were frauds, but she had met this strange little man who claimed his “life system” was the real deal. Later he would tell Jennifer that he had developed it based on an alien download. I know… but while Jennifer was in the hospital she called him, He was in New York and when he heard how sick she was, he offered to treat her… remotely.
This remote feature of the Life System had hardly been mentioned in Jennifer’s research, but she was so desperate she said fine. About 24 hours later, she was recovered enough to walk out of the hospital, although she would need another treatment when she got home. The results were obviously impressive. This would begin a long journey for Jennifer and all of us working with the Life System, but that was a ways off.
When I finally did visit Tucson, Jennifer was still recovering. I walked into her house and saw the effects of this episode. Jennifer is usually a great house keeper, but the house looked like a bomb had hit it. Matt’s room in particular was impacted and Jennifer unbeknownst to me was sleeping on a mattress on the floor. At the same time, her work at Miraval was becoming more challenging.
There were rumors the place was going to be sold to Steve Chase, the founder of AOL. All the men were running around pulling their best story together. That meant there wasn’t a lot of implementation of what Jennifer had developed going on. It didn’t happen right away, but I started to feel that Matt and Jennifer deserved better. This is by no means a comment on Jennifer’s motherhood abilities, it was really me feeling that Matt could benefit from both of us helping him again. This was in the air as other things were developing in LA.
StoryCatching on the Colorado Plateau.
I was still at Mass Media, but I knew that would come to an end at some point. I had continued to help John pitch the RI TV series and at some point he raised enough money from an angel investor to shoot a real pilot for the show based on all we had learned in two years. That seemed like it was moving forward but still had not arrived as yet.
My work on the Xporia Internet game was stalled and I began to look at non-profit foundations as a source of funding for my storycatching concept. Part of what prompted this was some people I met in Flagstaff Arizona on one of my RV adventures. They had used some Internet mapping software called Key Hole for a project they were doing with forest management. This 3D mapping software was fascinating. In these early days, it utilized satellite photography from government sources and mapped it into a 3D global interface that you could manipulate to look at particular locations.
As I played with this global map I thought it could be a great story telling tool. You could geo-locate stories at the locations in which they were happening and tie together individual stories into a larger narrative that was emerging at multiple locations.
The Flagstaff friends introduced me to all kinds of people working on the Colorado Plateau. This included folks on the Hopi and Navajo reservations, fine art museums, North Colorado University Research Labs, experimental farms etc. There was even a Riordan Mansion State Park dedicated to a far distant relative that helped settle the area when the whites arrived.
The Colorado Plateau was home to three cultures, Native American, Latino and White. There was an uneasy dynamic power struggle that went on that I thought the storycatching process could illuminate to everyone’s benefit. A rich ecosystem that I thought would be interesting to catch stories in.
In doing my research, one of my favorite stories that emerged was an effort by farmers, natives and the government to clean up a polluted river they all shared. Water was the life blood of this dry land and yet the river in this one area had become severely polluted by the fertilizer run off from farmers’ fields. In this case, the farmers were multi-generational whites and Latinos who had been on the land for a while. Native Americans were opposing them. The US government had gotten involved and they had all been in court for years getting nowhere.
Someone decided enough was enough. The two sides kicked the government out of the conversation as “outsiders” and proceeded to swap stories about the old days when the river had been clear enough so their kids could fish and swim. They found an alternative method to fertilizing the farmers’ fields that didn’t pollute the waters and eventually restored the river to its former state. I found this case illuminated the power of stories to connect. In this case, the permission to find common ground around a common resource in a win-win for everybody.
I ran around the reservations and the Latino and white communities gathering lists of people who would participate in my storycatching project. In the beginning I had no idea of who would fund it, but one day when I was at Northern Arizona University I was introduced to an interesting native man.
He was quite educated and well-spoken in a native way. He and I sat talking for a while about the story telling tradition in the Navajo and Hopi communities. Later, it was revealed he was actually a “scout” for the Christensen Foundation, a medium sized foundation funding projects on the Colorado Plateau.
That’s me in the image above, sitting at a single family dwelling built in the middle of a river for protection. The family that inhabited this structure in the 1600’s were barely five feet in height. Something about this place was familiar and took me back in some strange way.
My native scout was mysterious in our subsequent communications and that became even more so, when I visited the foundation offices in Palo Alto. The foundation had been set up by a white engineering bigwig who for some reason wanted to help the area find its bearings. Not many people in the non-profit world knew about them, but when I visited my friend told me to just tell them a story with an amount of money attached.
I did so while I was still at Mass Media and to my shock the Plateau project was funded. What lay ahead of me were many days and nights deep into the rez with medicine men and tribal elders, as well as storycatching with researchers at the Universities and representatives of the native arts community. However, as I was driving back to California in my RV, I got a call from John Chester that would delay this project for the moment and pull me into the grand adventure of Random 1.
Someone Said Yes… I Think.
In the subsequent year since John had first visited me at Mass Media and we all met Tim Kaiser, John had pitched the series idea to all the cable networks. I had gone with him to the LA pitches and it was a brutal exercise. We would meet with cable TV executives at various channels and they would ask us if the people we would help on Random 1 could all be hookers. John stayed steadfast in his concept, but we were running out of places to pitch.
We took a break to regroup and John decided to go to one of the big Cable Television conventions and see who he could meet. Other than the massive booths on the convention floor there were also lots of panel discussions featuring industry heavy weights. I had spoken at similar conventions when I was the interactive expert in the mid-nineties. These panel discussions were always awkward affairs. Civilians go expecting to hear what each channel was really doing, but what ultimately would be shared would be some semi-useful generalities. As each panel would end, the presenters would come off the stage and be mobbed by people who wanted to pitch them something. Having been one of these people before, I knew the last thing these folks wanted to do was listen to pitches. They were just trying to get out of the room.
John decided to go anyway and was one in a mob of people that descended on Nancy Dubuc, the head of A&E networks. She was trying to shift A&E from more exploitative programming to story oriented projects like HBO. John, as he told the story later, was literally jumping up and down at the edge of the crowd when Amy came towards him. In his moment with her he blurted out that he was working on a show with Tim Kaiser. Tim, the same guy that had promised to help, but hadn’t done that much. For whatever reason Amy paused and said… “you’re working with Tim?” John flashed Tim’s card and gave her a three line pitch. She said it sounded interesting and to give her a call when she was back in New York.
This began a series of telephone calls with me and John about what it all meant. I would ask John to tell me exactly what she had said. I feared it was a brush off move, even with the seeming connection. John called her office in New York and she actually chatted with him briefly and asked him to send her the pilot. She would then meet with him in person to discuss. I was still wary. It’s so easy to get lost in the shuffle of everyday network life, but her secretary did call back and schedule a meeting. We all thought… wow, could this be?
John went up to New York from his home in Baltimore and waited in the lobby as Nancy delayed the meeting a while, but finally invited him in. True to form she had not looked at the pilot. (roughly 40 minutes) She was rushed so she said she would and then call John.
This was a moment where John’s instincts from all the other pitches would come into play. He told her he would not leave the pilot. What he wanted was for them to watch it right then. This was what was so great about John. He could be fearless. He even told her another network was going to make him an offer. (Not entirely true)
Amy agreed to watch it with him. She was moved by the concept and said it was exactly the kind of new idea she was looking for to shift A&E to more positive stories. She said she needed to talk it through with others at A&E and promised to give John an answer. John called me and told me what had happened. I said it seemed promising, but still no commitment. We would have to wait.
John called a half hour later. He had been standing in the NY train station when Amy had called and said she would buy 10 episodes. After all the effort, time and disappointment… wow! I asked John for more details that would be important like how much was the budget per episode and when did the ten episodes have to be delivered. He didn’t know, but he was sure she had said yes. I called my friend Brian Altounian that had introduced us to Tim Kaiser and I almost drove off the road as we high fived through the phone wires. My God, the odds of this happening was almost zero, yet here we appeared to be making a television series. It was June 2005.
In the subsequent weeks we got more details. The per episode licensing fee was a decent $350,000 an episode. We thought we could shoot it for far less so that was good. There was only one catch. We had to deliver the 10 episodes by fall. It was now June. That meant that we would have to put together multiple crews plus editing teams to do episodes in parallel. Because John was the director and on camera all the time, this was going to be challenging!
You will notice that I used the term “WE” as I told this story. However, at that point it was not clear to me that I was going to work on the show. John had his on camera partner Andre, and his three on-screen producers from the pilot and the beginning of a production crew.
I had been happy to help John get this going, but now it was here, an old theme came up from my days in linear film. Other than the director, actual production jobs are just mostly organizing work. In a sense it was creative, particularly in this case, but all the same it was not really interesting to me. I had been excited by the concept of guerilla philanthropy that was at the core of the shows premise. I reasoned that the show could excite the audience to get involved. That was actually what I wanted to do. The convergence media piece. I wanted to build a web portal that we would run out of the back of the R1 RV mobile studio. Through it we would connect the audience directly to us. We would find out if they wanted to help.
The only issue was that a television show having its own web portal was not done in those days. A&E would build a promotional web site for the show, but if anyone actually tried to get in contact with us through that, we would never hear about it. We kept on A&E to let us do this.
John would eventually get them to agree to our own web portal and asked me to create it and be the editor. I would go under the surname of “The Chief.” If A&E had not agreed to let us do the web portal our next adventure in the Random 1 experience would not have ever happened. The world does move in mysterious ways if you let it.
Tucson to Boulder
As all this was going on, Jennifer’s time at Miraval in Tucson came to an end. They did not handle it well during the merger, so she was back at ground zero in a town that she really disliked. We had always talked about Boulder. When we originally went to Whidbey it was our second choice and at this point it just seemed like the right thing to do. Even though she didn’t have a job there and I was still in LA, I came out and we packed her and Matt in her RV and we drove to Flagstaff Arizona. From there she went East to Boulder and I went west back to LA. She would say later it was the right move.
As she and Matt drove into the beautiful green mountains of Boulder, the bleak dust of the desert fell away. Plus on the way in they passed the Omni hotel in Broomfield. Matt, in one of his prophetic moments, pointed to the Omni and said… “Mom you should work there.” It would come to pass eventually, so a foothold was established as I was heading East to do the R1 show.
One side job remained. I was almost done with the Bible Game, but Random 1 needed me immediately. I talked to David Todd and once again he was a champ. He was happy I was going to do something I was excited about and they could finish up the game.
I packed everything into my RV to head to Boulder. I would park or sell the RV there and then get on a plane for Baltimore. My brother Bruce thought a road trip sounded like a great idea. I had a car by this point in addition to the RV, so if he drove the Honda I would not have to tow it. I rigged the RV for speed and me, Bruce and Zephyr headed east.
I had a bit of time so we meandered through the southwest on the way. We visited the Riordan Mansion Museum. We also rented a jeep and almost killed ourselves four wheeling in the canyons in Utah. It was comforting having this time with Bruce. We made plans to go into Boulder through a back route in the mountains, but as we stopped to get gas on I-70, we noticed that transmission fluid was pouring out of the Bounder transmission box. This had happened once before. That time I had to rebuild it, so I knew if the fluid drained completely the Bounder would stop in its tracks.
We jumped in the RV/car and took off up the west side of the Rockies. I kept feeling the transmission slip, but I thought if we could just get to the divide, maybe we could coast down from there. We didn’t make it 20 miles. I felt the transmission go and was able to get off at an exit, but at the top of the ramp the Bounder gave up. It would not move. Cars were backing up behind us as I ran around trying to figure something out. In a bit a highway patrol man came up and offered to direct traffic while we called a heavy duty tow truck. We towed the Bounder to a side road and parked it. It was done.
I couldn’t believe it. Here I was finally heading into a new adventure and my trusty boat had sprung a leak, caught fire and burned to the water line. The Bounder, after being home to me and Zephyr for almost three years, was not going the last mile to Boulder. We would rent a truck, strip the RV of everything that was mine and after staying the night, drove the last leg to Boulder. I called the bank that had the paper on it and told them where to find it. It had no value to me at that point. It had done spectacularly in sheltering me through the storm, but it was spent and we left my old friend by the road. The Random 1 RV was waiting in Baltimore.
In this same time period I also reconnected with Dr. Sylvia Earle. In the seventies we had done the Ocean benefit concerts and swam with the whales in Hawaii. I had kept in touch and was particularly interested in the submersible company her daughter was running. If you are going to unlock the secrets of the oceans, you have to dive deep. Her company was actually designing and building submersible vehicles that did that. Big adventure there.
If you remember, researching the Colorado Plateau project I had come across a company that had created global mapping software that allowed you to zoom in to 3D representations of particular locations from space. I thought maps of this sort were ideal for telling meta-stories made up of individual nodes all over the globe.
I tracked the company down to Palo Alto and called them up. I told them I was thinking about this story mapping concept and asked if I could come see them. I arrived at Keyhole and was ushered into a conference room. A young guy talked with me for a while and when I asked to see more, he said I couldn’t step out of the conference room. It was all very mysterious. The explanation later was that KeyHole was doing work for government covert operations. These “black ops” required high security clearance and at the time they said they could give me a version of the mapping software, but I had no one to modify it for what I wanted to use it for.
Meanwhile Sylvia and I re-connected in New York. She talked about a grand agenda of hers to promote ocean awareness that included ocean expeditions, documentary films and even on my advice… games. It also included maps. In a strange synchronicity, Google Maps had bought the KeyHole software and were using it to create Google Earth. Both Sylvia and I were really excited about putting the ocean on Google Earth. That may sound a bit strange, but Google Earth used terrestrial photographs to create their maps and there were none of the ocean. It was just a big blue painting on Google Earth. Even though Random 1 was on the horizon, I joined Sylvia’s team.
As fate would have it, a couple of months later Sylvia was doing a panel presentation. On the same program was John Hanke, the head of Google Maps. Sylvia pitched him on putting the ocean on Google Earth and he said yes. It would take a while to organize it, but after Random 1 completed, the Google Ocean project set sail and that is a story for later.
Beginning in Baltimore
I had finally made it home to Boulder, minus the Bounder. It was good to spend time with Jenny and Matt, even though I didn’t know for how long. Boulder was beautiful, but I knew no one there. We had picked it as our kind of town, but what that meant would have to wait for R1 to complete its run.
John and his original team were straining to put together a multi-episode television series. The logistics were challenging. John had the basics from the pilot, but to do what needed to be done in 5 months, producers, editors, line managers, cameramen and me would have to be added. I drew up some original plans for the R1 web transmitter and showed them to John and his partner Molly.
What they entailed was documenting “live” the whole behind the scenes story of making Random 1. This would include at the very least doc footage, video and audio interviews and previews of upcoming episodes. I wanted the audience to feel like they were in the back of the R1 RV mobile studio with us being hosted by this strange character (me) “The Chief”. We also prepared the all-important message boards where our audience would communicate with us and each other.
John said go… so I contacted the web development company that I had used in San Francisco and they built the portal with all its necessary components and soon after I joined the R1 team in Baltimore where John and Molly lived.
An RV company had donated the fancy version of my Bounder to the show for the mobile studio and we set about equipping it to go out on the road. Meanwhile an entire studio was built in a warehouse to function as R1 headquarters, editing bays and eventually me and the R1 transmitter when the field team was home.
John, Andre and the pilot crew had worked out how they would approach people randomly on the street and relay what transpired back remotely to the RV team that was usually sitting about a mile off. The point team also had another member. Andre found this beat up old pickup truck and named it Jackie. John and Andre would drive around in Jackie looking for participants with the small film crew in a truck behind. At the last minute it was decided to put lipstick cameras in Jackie’s cab just in case John and Andre pulled whoever they were working with into the truck. This would become a major feature of the show. Jackie became the “confessional” where really strange and revealing things would emerge as John and Andre tried to help our participants.
Once everything was set, I flew home to Boulder to work on the transmitter while they ran a few tests. We always said that some of the “asks” that would surface in the process of making a difference would be big and some small. Andre picked the first test person, who needed… a new artificial leg. These things go for about $50,000. Suddenly, John and Andre knew this wasn’t a test. The show had started and I hustled back and met up with them on the road.
I am not going into all that transpired, but patterns emerged as Andre picked people to talk to that broke down into one of four reactions. The first was disbelief. The people picked had to trust these two scruffy guys were not playing a joke on them, typical of other reality shows. Those folks just walked off laughing. The second reaction when people realized that they actually might get help with something they needed, was to run away. Literally in the middle of stories, John and Andre would turn around and the subject would be gone. It was thought that maybe the chance that their life could be different was simply too much. The third and fourth variations were either stories or they weren't. We could never tell in advance.
On any given day Andre would direct all of us to some town or highway stop and pick someone to work with. You have heard the meme “you can’t judge a book by its cover?” This happened to us all the time. Andre would pick someone that really looked down on their luck. All of us in the RV would sigh with disbelief, but then over the course of the story it would be revealed that they were an absolutely outstanding human being. The opposite however was also true. Andre would pick a really nice looking person, well-spoken etc. However over the course of the story, a moment would come when we all realized we were getting into something that was weird and sometimes dark as people opened up. We just never knew and that was the dramatic strength of the concept.
The plan was to have two stories per episode over ten episodes. That meant 20 stories for the season. What got tiring was having to explore far more than that to get 20 interesting ones. It was a lot of bone breaking 24-7 work. The other thing the crew fought against was boredom. Andre had a nose for interesting people, but on some days there just weren’t any. We would spend long hours searching and go home at the end of the day with nothing.
When you do one of these things, there is the plan and then there is what happens. As time went along John and Andre would get into conflict with each other, stressed with having to produce day after day. Some of that was planned as part of the creative tension of the show, but some of it was real. That made all of us always wonder sometimes if we were going to crash at some point. However, the two of them would forgive each other and we pushed on. Stories came in all sizes. Sometimes the person just needed a cell phone. For that ask it was easy for the producers to convince someone in a mall phone store to give them one. Everyone wanted to be on TV. Some stories were very complicated, including the one that would change our lives.
I was also interested in why people helped at all. One of the questions that the show wanted to answer in 2005 was… “Did anyone really care?” Or were we all too busy or too scared to try to help someone that was a complete stranger. It turned out America had a heart. Over and over again, our “gifters” would tell me that it wasn’t that they couldn’t see people in need. They just didn’t know what to do about it. Along comes Random 1 and we tell them a simple story with one ask attached to it. Something they could do. Most jumped at the chance to help.
We all knew the show could be ending because the ratings had been good, but not great and Nancy at A&E was under pressure from the bean counters not to do another season. That was in the wind, but the universe came up with another reason. That began with Andre picking Mark, a friendly guy in coveralls sitting next to a liquor store. (That should have been our first clue about what was about to unfold). If you are interested, I would check out Random 1 first and then Lost in Woonsocket, which became the unexpected and much bigger second story of this adventure.
The R1 Journey Ends
The word came down from A&E, no second season. This is always hard for a group of people who have become family, working hard together to do something significant. The interesting thing is that by the time the season was over and Mark’s and Norman’s story was still resonating, we did not want to do another season of the original concept. The audience (through the transmitter) had been very clear. They wanted us to help people really in need.
The original R1 concept called for a mix of stories from light to heavy. It turned out the audience was not excited about us helping a young woman become a super model. As a result of Mark and Norman’s story, we wanted to do more of that. The truth was, these were more dangerous stories and A&E would never let us do them. So, we did something else.
The R1 studio was shut down, the RV returned and everyone scattered to their homes. It had been a real burnout, so the part about going home was not all bad. In my case, I just didn’t know what I was going to do next. There were some potential options in the air, and sure enough the universe did have something in mind.