Jailbreaking the Matrix (Part 1)

{In which I am stranded in the simulation by aliens and decide to make a run for it.}

Halloween Day, 1997

As the plane accelerated along the runway, a book slid out of my bag and lodged between my feet.

My grandfather had couriered it over and I had hurriedly stuffed into my carry-on without looking at the cover. Now I saw it, an ancient-looking thing titled COURAGE with the subtitle The Story of Sir James Dunn. Surely another story of yet another Canadian industrialist to remind me of where I come from.

As I reached down to pick it up, something slipped out of the pages and I felt my stomach drop –  and not from the pilot’s sudden gunning for take-off.

It was the folded glossy pages of a recent profile done on me in a magazine called Toronto Life. Actually, ‘profile’ is a generous way of saying hit-piece / psychological deconstruction titled ‘The Channeler’. Above the fold, an askew full-color image of my wide deer-in-headlights eyes and shaved head. Beneath the fold the text that I had hoped my grandfather of all people would never see:

Voices spoke to Stephen Marshall in the desert, prophesying that he would manifest a global television network. They’d told him not to worry that he didn’t know anything about television. So he didn’t. Floating in a stoned haze in a swimming pool in Belize, he came up with the name Channel Zero. And the name was good. And soon the high priests of television were at his feet, from CNN to NBC to the stalwart CBC. When he told them he could see the future, they believed.

My family was not unaccustomed to press coverage of our business exploits. My pioneering grandfather Welsford and his brother, CD, had built a succession of small family steel businesses, bridge-by-bridge and mill-by-mill, into a mainstay of the Canadian fabrication business. But then came my father Jeffrey, who was of that generation of industrialist scions who went for quick double masters (in his case first-in-his-class engineering and then MBA) with an eye on vastly expanding the family business.  

Which he did with a vengeance while I was growing up in Montreal during the 1970s. 

It didn’t take long for him to feel constrained by the Canadian industrial manufacturing vertical, so he started looking at acquisition deals which would get Marshall Steel into new markets. It was the early 80’s and hostile takeovers were driving the American big business narrative. Dad saw himself playing on that field.

There was one target in particular that really got him excited. It was the the century-old retail steel business named Drummond McCall – founded in Montreal in 1881 – with operations in nine provinces and the Northeastern United States. The fact that there was ‘history’ between our families – specifically, the firing of my grandfather from the CEO job at another of the cornerstone Canadian steel companies – only fueled his passion. So he and the brilliant young securities attorney Ed Waitzer holed up in the Montreal Ritz Carlton and conducted a very public run at the exponentially larger firm.

This essentially meant splitting the two families – the Drummonds and the McCalls – to exercise a share purchase that would get my father majority stake. After months of public and acrimonious wrangling, he got it on the last attempt and acquired Drummond McCall. But the timing proved to be disastrous as North America was headed into one of the worst recessions in history, which triggered a ban on all steel imports to the US, our largest market.

My father spent the next five years downscaling the business he had just risked everything to buy, all-the-while hemorrhaging money from the well-performing family business he already owned, before selling Drummond McCall in 1987. But the damage was done.

Marshall Steel never recovered from the massive debt it took on to buy Drummond.

It was a testament to dad’s prowess in crisis management that the family business survived into the early 90s – our last two projects were the high-profile Mies Van Der Rohe TD5 and the new CBC headquarters, both in downtown Toronto. But karma is a bitch and after a desperate battle to find a buyer, he lost the company in a less-public but no-less-hostile forced sale to another family competitor, Cecil Hawkins.

Ironically, it was a final act of grace that saved me, the eldest Marshall of the next generation, from having to fill in the role of successor. Something I had resisted – to the great ire of my father -all of my adolescent life. But with that destiny scrubbed, and dad epically transformed from the dumpster fire of his reality, he encouraged me to ‘get out of the country’ before the takedown. An inspiration that led to my Cairo-to-Cape Town overland trip and began my process of radical depatterning that opened an entirely new realm of experiential reality.

But that is another story altogether. For the purposes of this moment, all you need to know is that my stoic and salt-of-the-earth grandfather, despite the loss of our family fortune, still had high hopes for me. And surely this article in the widely-read July edition of Toronto Life about his crazed grandson did not bring him comfort. A message he was sending in his typically forthright but poetic style.

But love and respect him as I did, I didn’t have the capacity to hold his feelings at that moment; as the plane ferried me across the country he had helped to build.

It was late fall of 1997, and I had just been forced to retreat from my extended couch-surfing safari in New York – during which I tried to sell the wildly futurist home-shopping-to-fund-the-revolution TV channel proposal that CNN’s Chairman Tom Johnson had solicited after my keynote appearance at the NewsWorld Conference in Berlin only 10 months prior.

[Also another yet-to-be-written part of this story, which is however captured in my IG posts.]

It’s a testament to how delusional I was that my ‘plan’ depended on charming the secretaries and assistants to then-broadcast titans Barry Diller, Sumner Redstone and John Malone and then getting them to deliver personalized boxes with uber-designed (and aborted) Channel Zero/CNN channel proposal.

Which, just to ensure it was weaponized for maximal alienation, was titled The End of Broadcast Television

After 2 months of surviving on nothing but pocket change and wild idealism – which was enough to enlist a network of supporters around the city – the closest I got to a ‘success’ was the near-closing of a book deal with Broadway Books for a Plato’s Cave themed first-person journey into the heart of the broadcast beast. But when that fell apart too, I jumped on a flight back to Vancouver Island, where my mother now lived, to recalibrate and figure out my next plan. 

The reality was that my mental state was a shambles.

In the last 36 months I’d done two around-the-world guerrilla video-shoots, launched and lost a media company (or more brutally: raised and blown through nearly $2M in investment), got hooked on some pretty vicious narcotics, and orchestrated one of most extreme high-wire crash-and-burn spectacles in Canadian media history; which started with the Naomi Klein hit-piece This Marshall has lost his message (as a response to the hyperbolic Village Voice article which compared my Channel Zero vision to Marshall McLuhan) and ended with the ultimate humiliation ritual: that 8 page full-color psychological deconstruction in Toronto Life.

Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that it all started with an alien encounter in Sedona?

(Because that context is critical to understanding everything that happens next.)

<Part II>

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  1. Pingback: Jailbreaking the Matrix (Part 3) | shimmer, kid