Stanford. I guess that's as good a place as any to begin.
By the end of last year, 2017, I was wrapping up my media business. For the past 13.5 years, I had run a regional magazine, visitor guides and visitor maps for the Joshua Tree National Park area, local newspapers, a weekly radio show, and a travel television show that aired on regional PBS. There were ups and downs, good things and bad things, challenges I had anticipated, and truly bizarre stuff that I hadn't. Ultimately, all it had gotten me in the end was a lot of debt and a huge case of burnout.
When I escaped multinational corporate journalism (Gannett), and bought a magazine for my birthday on May 31, 2004, I had thought it would be a grand adventure, with lots of opportunities to write about the people, places, and things that were - and still are - important about the desert.
At the time, one person asked me what I would write about since there was nothing to write about in the desert. I told them that if I lived to be 100, and I published the magazine monthly between now and then, I would go to my grave with hundreds, if not thousands, of stories I wanted to write, but didn't get the chance. Some people can think the desert is a wasteland. For story material, there is no more fertile ground than here.
And new stories show up every day.
But after 13.5 years, I wasn't writing the stories I wanted to write, or building community, or making a difference. I was just trying to hold things together, and not doing a good job of it, focused on all the aspects of trying to run a business by myself, on a frayed shoestring, for far too long. Looking back, I should have called it quits long before, but one thing or another always came along and made me feel like I needed to keep going. The TV show with its potential, a new promising ad representative, a potential buyer - one by one, just when I'd think it was time to move on, they'd appear like a mirage to keep me chasing after success that never was there.
Finally though, the mirages gave way to the hard focused reality of where I had come to here in the desert. I didn't like the reality, but since when does reality care about our likes and dislikes?
The dismal reality of my business hit at the same time that I had been doing some soul searching as to what I wanted to do with my life, my future, if I had one. I was intensely dissatisfied with not being able to do the writing and storytelling I had originally set out to do. I had learned a great deal through this real life MBA program that had been my business. I knew how to produce all kinds of media projects for almost nothing, and proved it with the second season of our television show. We (and it most certainly was "we" not me, and I remain in awe of the incredible dedication of the team we assembled) worked our asses off to produce seven quality episodes in California and Arizona for our PBS host station.
Once, a potential underwriting recruiter asked, "What is your budget for the shows?" I replied, "Around $1,500 per episode, including the $250 for closed captioning." "That's not sustainable," he dryly replied. "No shit," was my response. I mean, really, as if I wasn't aware that we were making shows on fumes. He said he was going to work to bring in new sponsors - real sponsors, with real money. After all, we had the option of putting the show into national distribution to all 350 PBS stations with their regular audience of 200 million viewers. All we needed was a realistic budget to make it happen.
It never did happen, and that was typical. Then the recruiter's mother had a massive heart attack just before we were to leave to shoot our Route 66 show. We had some major sponsors, but the recruiter left the details until the last, and when his mom went into the ICU (for six weeks), there was no way I was going to try to take a crew of nine to Chicago and down the road for two weeks with nothing confirmed and him out of his head with worry for his mom. By the time he got his mother out of the ICU and into an assisted nursing situation, the entire marketing team of our major sponsor had changed. He'd have to start all over again. He began the process, and then his eyeballs blew up. They turned bright red like some kind of new zombie movie or something, and that was that. He couldn't keep going.
That kind of thing was pretty typical. Folks seemed to love what I managed to produce, but support for it to make it even better or sustain it, was elusive. Not that that's unusual. It's pretty much the life of most creative folks I know whose parents didn't leave them a trust fund.
I was always told by readers how much they liked my magazine, how high the quality was of the editorial content, and how enjoyable the TV show was. But whatever I produced was never good enough for major advertisers. The magazine didn't look like Palm Springs Life (and didn't cost like it either). It didn't look like Arizona Highways (no, because your taxes don't pay for it, and if they did, I wouldn't need to sell you an ad). It's not on shiny paper (hell, I got in trouble when I moved it from black and white to color, but to be honest, I had planned a paper upgrade to make the art and photos look better, but I could never afford it), I wrote something they didn't like, I ran a pornographic ad (art, by a local artist) so I'm a pornographer (nope - I'd be making lots more money if that was the case), I advertise in the Johnson Valley paper and they're only $5 (that's because they photocopy 100 of them and I produce thousands of copies of a real magazine in full color and distribute them outside of Johnson Valley), etc. I get weary just remembering all of this.
I hated being the advertising salesman because I'm not very good at it really (I'm a journalist, not a salesman), and the ignorance and nastiness that my ad reps would tell me about made me want to go right on down and punch someone. I mean, you're going to cuss out an 83 year-old woman just because she walked in your shop? Really? Not only were these folks being mean to my rep, who was also their neighbor and potential customer, but they were also being nasty to me, a local business owner, neighbor, potential customer, and someone who spent a lot of time trying to support their damned community. Being the owner of the business made asinine rejection (as opposed to thought out and necessary rejection, which I don't have a problem with) too personal. It really comes down to I don't like people shitting on me or the things I make. I'd like to be able to say that in a nicer way, but that's how it's felt. The magazine, newspapers, and TV shows were all of quality (and yes, they could all be better - and a bigger budget really helps in that department), and they were worth supporting.
Sometimes, it got ludicrous. We had a shot at Microsoft as a sponsor for our Route 66 travel show. Their know-it-all ad agency (for the most part, after decades of dealing with them, I hold ad agencies in contempt and rarely think they do a good job for their clients) watched an episode - one of the episodes we shot for $1,500 including the closed captioning, travel expenses, food for the crew, etc. - and told us that it didn't look like a $150,000 episode, so we should come back when our show looked like that. Uh, we shot it for 1 percent of that budget. We're looking for sponsors because we have the talent and crew that can handle production at the $150,000 level. But since slave labor is illegal, and while I'm good at getting a lot for my money, I still can't perform miracles, we actually have to have money to pay for things. Go figure.
But enough of all of the challenges and annoyances of running the media business. It's not that interesting, just annoying. The end result is that I was finished with running the business, and wanted to return to journalism and storytelling. So I began searching for jobs online.
The first thing that hit me when I began my job search was that journalism has significantly changed during the time I'd been operating my own media business. The online "news" outlets all advertised for editors who would not only edit the work of contributors, while assigning stories and keeping up on all the news so they could anticipate big stories and prepare for them, but they would also write several stories daily as well. Anyone who has actually worked as an editor professionally knows that you can't really do all that and do it very well. It's very hard, for instance, for a journalist to produce several stories of their own on a daily basis, let alone do everything else in the job description. Sure, you can rewrite some press releases, or, as in the case of much internet news, you can steal material from other media outlets and rewrite it, but that's not quite the same thing as actually researching and writing your own work.
It also hit me that I wasn't 22 any more, and my resume, noting my more than 30 years of experience, was automatically getting me rejected. Who wants some cranky old journalist with real world experience dragging down the newsroom? Being on my own for so long also wasn't working in my favor. In fact, career-wise I probably should never have run my own business. But that hindsight stuff, while it's clear, it's also utterly useless.
Add to all of that the fact I wasn't applying from an urban area, but somewhere in the proverbial middle of nowhere (I prefer to think of this part of the desert as Far East Los Angeles, but all the LA folk like to believe they're on some hipster planet, Fauxhemia, but the point is that I'm not a liberal pseudo-intellectual twenty-something from DC or New York). I began to think my journalism career was being shut down for good. And then I saw it - an ad for an "engagement editor" from a journalism fellowship program based at Stanford.
I figured the job was a long shot, so I responded to their questions with complete honesty. I sent my application materials off, thinking I'd never hear back. That was followed by a Skype interview, then a request for a more detailed proposal and analysis, and then, they flew me up to the Bay Area for a personal interview with seven members of their staff.
I arranged the flight from Palm Springs, and they took care of the hotel reservations. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I always thought that if you were flying someone in from out of town, you'd send someone to the airport to meet them. But now, we have Lyft and Uber and so, I took Lyft back to the hotel. After I dropped off my bag, I set off to find dinner. There were plenty of upscale restaurants in that section of Palo Alto, but I'm not usually interested in a fine dining experience when I'm traveling solo for business. It's far more enjoyable and worthwhile when I'm with someone else, so we can enjoy the social component of the experience, which is just as important as the food, drink, service, and ambience.
The hotel was just around the corner from California Avenue, so I passed the fine dining options and settled on Mediterranean Wraps. I love Mediterranean/Middle Eastern foods, and for a casual dining spot, this place didn't disappoint. The hummus and baba ghanoush were tasty, and the shawerma with lamb was tender, moist, and delicious.
Not that I was going to get to enjoy it without a challenge.
A few tables away, one of the more miserable couples I've encountered in my travels, sat down with their dinners. They were young, and the guy reeked of techie. It was clear right off the bat that the woman was about as unhappy as you can be, and wished for nothing more than to be left alone. The guy was too busy trying to micromanage the woman down to the cellular level to get the basics of the matter, which is she wanted him to not just go away, but to vanish from the face of the planet, to never be heard from or seen ever again during her lifetime.
Their interactions were so painfully awful that my meal lost its flavor and I got out of there as quickly as possible. I went for a walk down California Avenue to shake some of the stink off, and soon, she passed me by quickly, headed for her car. Without the guy.
The next morning were the interviews. I hadn't interviewed for a job in person for something like 17 years. With the interviews scheduled over a week in advance, I had gone down to the Beauty Bubble in Joshua Tree to get a haircut, in an attempt to make myself somewhat presentable. And then I decided to shave off the goatee residing on my face.
Big mistake. With my face being naked and bare for the first time in a decade or so, I now looked like an aging leprous tortoise. Even my wife urged me to regrow my facial hair - and she hates facial hair on guys.
So, when I got to Stanford, not only had I walked from the hotel to the campus on a cool and blustery morning, through a seemingly endless assortment of construction sites, but I had about a week's worth of facial hair that made me look somewhat like a humanized cholla (if they can have teddy bear cholla, surely they can have a Shanghai cholla).
The day went as well as could be expected. My tie had been blown inside out on the walk over, and I'm sure I wasn't the most impeccably dressed candidate. I probably looked like an aging journalist who had spent the last 14 years in the wilderness.
I was torn about the job itself. On one hand, it would be an immense change for my wife, cat, and I, and moving to the Bay Area would be a monumental challenge. We'd be relocating from what may be the cheapest place to live in California, to the most expensive, from a home with two acres of land between us and our neighbors, to one that would likely have neighbors not only next door, but above and below us as well.
On the other hand, it would be an incredible opportunity to meet and work with some of the leading minds and forces in journalism today - precisely what I'd never be able to do out here in the desert. The thought of being able to reconnect professionally in that manner was stimulating, and I had dozens of ideas about how I could be an asset to the organization.
A month after the interview, I received a call from the Stanford folks. Was I still interested in the position? I was told I was still in the running and they would make their decision soon.
Another month passed. I finally decided that I should check on the status. After all, the Cooper's hawks had their nest in the tree out front, and I was starting to do work for a desert organization helping create public awareness about significant issues facing desert residents.
The end result was a phone conversation where I was told they had chosen someone else for the position. The way the conversation went down seemed as if they had done the choosing some weeks earlier and just hadn't bothered to tell me. It seemed if I hadn't have called, I would have never heard from them again, which was odd after all the effort invested in the process. But at least I had an answer.
It made me reflect on how I felt on the plane back from San Francisco, thinking about the interviews, the people I'd met (I really enjoyed meeting other journalists and thinking about being part of a professional team like the one in Stanford), the issues discussed, and how what I really wound up thinking about on that plane, were all the dark spaces below as we flew back toward Palm Springs.
It's the dark spaces that captivate me. The spaces between urban areas, between people. The places where the wild things live, where we go to experience the world as it could be without us. The places where sometimes you can still encounter solitude, or even silence (whenever a plane isn't flying overhead, that is).
Stanford felt unreal, like a crowded, bustling, noisy dream. A dream of a place so focused on its own reality it is utterly unaware there are many other realities out there. And its perspectives on journalism seem to reflect that lack of awareness. They talk about "news deserts" and come up with micro-payments to fund journalists - that kind of stuff. They don't seem to understand that most rural places - the dark spaces - are news deserts for a variety of reasons.
They haven't worked in back-of-beyond towns. They've worked in smaller market newsrooms, but there's a big difference between a newsroom in a city of 100,000 people, and one in a community of 24,000 or less. I've just worked the reality of rural journalism for the past 14 years. It's complex in ways someone in Palo Alto is never going to understand. I began to realize that one of the main reasons I wanted this job in Stanford was because of the dynamics of this news desert - because local politics and backstabbing and small town trashing is far more important here than whether you do quality work.
Since my trip to Stanford, things have continued on out here in the dark spaces. The hawks have had four babies, and it looks like they've lost two, though I could be wrong. Juliett, our kitty, has been attacked by the mama hawk once, and I've been hit in the head twice by the daddy hawk. The first time, he snuck up on me and dive bombed the back of my head, drawing blood and possibly giving me a slight concussion. The second time, just recently, it seemed more like a prank, like a little hawk humor. With the babies leaving the nest, and activity around it winding down, it almost seemed like he was saying goodbye.
But that could just be me misinterpreting his dive bombing of my head, though the way he sat and looked at me afterward makes me think he wasn't angry or protective when he did it.
There was also a coyote's attempt to grab Juliett which resulted in my visit to a local urgent care center to get antibiotics. The coyote didn't get either myself or Juliett, but it did get close to us - about four feet or less - so when I went to grab Juliett to keep her away from the coyote, she reacted as if she was fighting for her life and clawed the heck out of my hand. The next day, when it ballooned up and turned red, and the red started up my arm, I knew it was time for antibiotics.
The urgent care in Yucca Valley looked like something David Lynch would slide into one of his films. Though I was the only patient there, I had to wait over half an hour while a tall, skinny, balding older guy shuffled around the office trying to find pencils. His shirt was half tucked-in, and half out, and he had a tendency to mumble. He was the doctor on duty.
When I finally did see him, he asked if I had had a recent tetanus shot. I told him no. He didn't give me one, but he did write a prescription for antibiotics which I took next door, after a fashion. For some reason, at the urgent care, the doctor can't give you your prescription when he writes it. Instead, he gives it, eventually, to the receptionist, and after a fashion, she gives it to you. That provided the opportunity to learn that the $75 I had to pay for the visit with my insurance, was $15 more than what I would be charged if I just walked in and paid cash with no insurance. Well, at least I'm $15 closer to my $14,000 deductible! Such is the state of healthcare in America.
But with all its imperfections and flaws, I'm at home out here in the dark spaces. I'd miss my morning walks with Juliett out across the desert, keeping an eye out for coyotes, watching the squabbling going on with the baby hawks in the trees. I'd miss the roadrunner, the cottontails hoping for a handout, and the lightning fast lizards. It's not natural any more to be hemmed in with high rises and to not see the mountain ranges rise up one after another off in the distance.
Stanford wasn't meant to be. Ideally, I'll find a way to make more connections with the journalism world and do meaningful work both here and outside of the desert. But whether it's the desert, mountains, prairies, or oceans, the dark spaces are where my soul resides. I love the city for its variety of human experiences, its cultural offerings and opportunities. But the dark places are what I think of as home.