Field of Sighs

In June of 2000, I went on assignment for to Andrews, North Carolina, to write about the manhunt for Eric Rudolph, the terrorist whose bombs in Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama, in 1996 and 1998 killed two people and injured 120 others.

But after finishing the Rudolph story, I returned several more times to write about the people and their devotion to what seemed like a dying town.

After one of my visits, I called Jane Brown, an instructor in anthropology and history at Western Carolina University, for perspective.

“It all has to do with the sense of place,” she told me. “You need to experience it. Otherwise, you can’t relate to the things they say or what Appalachian life is like… It has something to do with the mountains.”

Not Alone In This World

Andrews is in a valley 1,700 feet above sea level that is encircled by heavily forested Smokey Mountains. Although they lack the formidable, snow-capped splendor of the Alps or Rockies, the Smokies have a comforting presence, a strength and a permanence that captivated me every time I visited.

On one of those visits, I had an unusual experience that I’d forgotten about until recently when reading a poem in an issue of TIME magazine.

In “An Orchard at the Bottom of the Hill,” Maurice Manning writes about an apple tree with “bees meticulously/attending every blossom there, and you think the tree is kind of sighing./Such careful beauty in the making,/and then you think, it’s really quiet,/but I am not alone in this world.”

After dinner one evening in July of 2000, it was too early to go back to my room, so I went for a drive. It had been raining most of the day and although it had finally stopped, the sky was heavy with clouds.

A Tattered Banner

I drove out of town on Fairview Road headed roughly southwest and turned onto Pisgah Road, which runs south between two ridges. High up on the ridge to the right a long streamer of moist gray cloud hung like a tattered banner.

I passed modest, well-kept homes and small pastures that sloped up toward the mountains behind. In some places, smaller ridges worked their way down toward the valley, creating the “hollers” of Appalachian lore.

About a mile up the road, this pastoral was broken by a cluster of dingy mobile homes, sheds and garages. Junked cars, tools and agricultural oddments lay in the weeds and underbrush, as if someone had been cleaning out a barn and forgot to finish the job. The air of sullen neglect indicated otherwise.

Beyond, however, the countryside reclaimed its rural beauty. After another half-mile or so, I pulled off onto a gravel road and turned the car around. I coasted over to the left side of the road, lowered the front windows and shut off the engine.

Spanish Moss

Directly ahead, across the paved road, a wet green field sloped up past a low shed and a weathered gray barn to a thick stand of trees. To my left and right were empty fields. Mist hung in the air like Spanish moss.

I still wasn’t sure what exactly I was doing there, and it took a few minutes to let everything settle. There wasn’t anything to do or see or, for that matter, to hear.

I live less than two miles from a general aviation airport, 500 yards as the crow flies from commuter and Amtrak rail lines, three blocks from a fire station and two blocks from the busiest street in Atlanta. I’ve got a sound track of planes, trains, automobiles and fire engines every day, all day, and often at night, too.

Here it was … still. Silent. Peaceful.

Deep breath. I’m still coming to terms with the stillness. 

A Bird Call

Then, from the field across the street, drifts the call of a bird: “Fwhee-to-whee.”


Splat — a raindrop hit the roof.

Splatter — another on the windshield.





The silence isn’t just the lack of sound, it feels real … an enchantment. 

Becalmed and Serene

Eyes closed, another breath. With the exhale I feel tension release in my neck and shoulders, the pressure of city life floating off into the mist. Becalmed and serene, I slip away.

In this curiously expanded state I hear something familiar and yet not possible. I lean forward slightly, eyes still closed, listening intently.

There it is again.

From the very edge of awareness, the faintest of sounds, a whispering sigh.


The Kiss of Life

The gentle exhalation of the earth itself. Untouched by man, unhurried, unspoiled, the planet breathes the kiss of life.

I sit stunned and wondering. Such a gift, such a moment. I had never thought of the earth as breathing, as being alive; now I want to tell someone, but who?

Who could imagine something so unlikely, that amazing sense of connection and wholeness? The sense of being part of something so vast and reassuring?

Scientists know that plants communicate with each other. Native Americans  honor “Mother Earth” and call “our cousins of the plant kingdom Standing Ones or Standing People.”

Exposed and Vulnerable

But I’m out in the gathering dark, and suddenly I feel exposed, vulnerable.

I sit up and turn the key. The wipers surge and whine, clearing the mist from the windshield. I start the car, feeling the need to get out of there before someone drives past and laughs at the city slicker sitting in the dark and rain, doing God knows what.

I drive back to town.

Eighteen years later, I value that experience more than ever, especially for the reminder of how healing and restorative nature can be. And it’s pretty cool that Maurice Manning got an opportunity to spread the word. 



Healing the Future

When I was 8, my 9-year-old cousin Skip showed me a drawing he’d made of a rowboat, and it shocked me.

When I drew, my subject matter was pretty much limited to fighter jets with the US Air Force insignia on the side. I probably drew boats, too, so it wasn’t that Skip had drawn a boat that amazed me. It was how he drew it.

My drawings were flat  — two dimensional. But Skip’s boat had three dimensions. It projected off the page, and when I saw that something in me died.

To the extent that any 8-year-old knows what he’s going to be when he grows up, I didn’t fancy myself an artist. But until then nothing had persuaded me that my drawings were inadequate, either.

Skip’s did, and in my despair I ignored that he had learned it from a book, and maybe I could, too. All I could think was that this was yet another instance where I wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t do it, and that I might as well give up. So I did.

No Latitude for Mistakes

Such thinking didn’t originate with that episode, of course. It was a continuation of experiences that began years before, all convincing me that I was inadequate, that the turf that I could call my own — the realm where I was adequate and capable — was pitifully small and subject to further erosion.

That subconscious belief washed over into adult life, limiting my willingness to try new things only when I thought I could be good at them immediately. There was no latitude for making mistakes. I had to be perfect.

I never took up playing the guitar for that reason. Yet, like millions of others, I played air guitar along with  Mark Knopfler, Billy Gibbons and Carlos Santana, and still regret that I didn’t give it a try. I never risked surfing while living in Hawaii, and body-surfed in the islands only because I’d done a tamer version of it on the Mainland and loved it.

Years later, a wonderful artist and former high school classmate,  Claire Watson Garcia, gave me a free painting lesson and strongly urged me to continue. I didn’t.

Unfounded Assumptions

Self-doubt and saying “no” was such a part of my identity that I assumed that’s who I really was. But after the failure of three long relationships (two of them divorces), I began to re-examine my life and realized that many of my assumptions were unfounded and had been forced upon me by childhood circumstances.

In the mid-1990s, I attended a men’s retreat led by New Age author Dan Millman. Millman, a former gymnast, did a great job of mixing instruction with physical activity, and the finale was breaking a board with our bare hands.

The premise was that if we could break a board, we could also break through personal issues. So before we broke the boards, we had to write on them what we were trying to break through.

I wrote:  “Holding back.”

I broke the board successfully, but breaking through the control and perfectionism behind the holding back has been a long and difficult process. I’m still working on it.

“I Can’t”

A few days ago, after more than a year of pondering it, watching YouTube videos and consulting knowledgable friends, I finally decided to replace my kitchen faucet.

This was not a vanity project. The faucet stopped working in March of 2017, I’m embarrassed to say. But since the spray hose still worked, I limped along, not wanting to pay a plumber, yet not wanting to give up on the idea that, dammit, I could do it.

The hang-up, as usual, was self-doubt. Just as I concluded from Skip’s drawing that I was not an artist, I also learned long ago that I was not mechanical. My brother, Dave, the kid who raised and lowered the family trash can into a tree with a block and tackle, he was mechanical. He became an engineer.

I was an athlete who could spell and loved to read, and discovered later that I could write. Beyond that, every new thing, every change in the status quo was a challenge and a referendum on my self-worth, and my reaction was always “I can’t.”

Open Mind, Willing Heart

But when I started questioning my assumptions, not many of them were valid. Including, it still amazes me to say, the idea that I have no mechanical ability. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that with an open mind and a willing heart, I can do far more than I thought.

It began with replacing a washer in a leaky bathroom faucet — laughably easy for many, but for me it was a beginning. Then I risked replacing the flush valve in a toilet. The new one included instructions on how to clean it. So I took apart the old one, cleaned it, put it back together and it worked.

Wow, I did that?

I replaced a doorknob, a toilet lever, a lamp socket. I put up a new mailbox and, despite massive misgivings, installed a dryer vent.

At that point, I was almost giddy with success, and when an electrical outlet started smoking, I consulted a contractor friend. Suitably informed, I turned off the circuit breaker, pulled the outlet from the wall, took pictures of the wiring, bought a new one, wired it and installed it.

At that point, I felt like I was on the North Face of home repair. Screw up electrical stuff and you’re homeless.

And then the piece de resistance: I removed the defective kitchen faucet — which proved to be as deeply resistant to change as I am — and installed a sleek new one. It will be a week or so before I stop sharing my amazement at that accomplishment.

Inconvenient Opportunities

It’s absurd that I waited a year to brave it, especially with all the junk from beneath the sink sitting on a coffee table in my sunroom, reminding me daily of my unwillingness. That I finally overcame it was huge, and exposes another level to the experience that goes beyond the satisfaction of having a cool new faucet.

Household breakdowns — like divorces, getting laid off and so many other things I resent and resist — are always inconvenient and uncomfortable, but they are also opportunities.

When I hold back, I’m a victim; the past is running me. Accepting that life is about problem solving opens up possibilities to change, grow, and take back my life.

Taking action led to a series of accomplishments that unlocked a limiting mentality and opens me up to things I may have set aside — like drawing and painting — and to possibilities I may never have even considered.

In other words, It’s about hope and changing the trajectory of a life. It’s about healing the future.



Aging, Not Old

I got an email recently from the agency that represents me requesting that I audition for the role of  a “somewhat clueless old man” in a movie that begins shooting in three weeks.

It’s not the first such request I’ve had. In fact, in just the past few months, I’ve had a half-dozen invitations to audition and with one exception — a role in the “Mr. Mercedes” TV series — all of the casting directors were looking for some version of a doddering old codger.

One of the requests came a week or so ago, and this was for a series of appearances that would have added up to a handsome check. Which I could very much use.

But they wanted a guy in his late 70s or 80s who sounded like a shambling old coot.

As I told my agent, I’m 73, but I’m also “supple and fit,” In fact, I had spent two hours earlier that day at the YMCA lifting weights. I also included a photo from a job last year that had me 30 feet up on a climbing wall.

When we were in our early 60s, a friend of mine used to say, “We’re getting old, JW.” He had special dispensation to use my first two initials, but being identified as getting old pissed me off. 

I’m not oblivious to changes as I age. My hair used to be brown; now it’s white, although I prefer to call it silver. The muscles I’ve worked hard to maintain are shrinking. I’ve got the kind of wrinkles I remember seeing on my grandfather’s face, and I’ve lost an inch in height. I took losing that inch personally. That was part of my identity, and I’m still not OK with it. But that’s reality.

Then one day at the gym a heavy-set guy lumbered past wearily, and commented, “I’m getting old. I’m 61.”

I was 62 at the time, and in far better shape than he was. I said nothing, but it gave me the answer I was looking for.

“We start aging as soon as we’re born,” I told my friend when I saw him next, “but getting old is a state of mind, and I’m not going there.”

That’s still my operative premise. Aging is reality; getting old is a choice. And that was the energy behind yet another note to my agent — this one more combative.

Hi J——, 

At the risk of being a pain in the you-know-what, my reaction to this audition is same as the one last week for P——.

Namely, clients have an outdated notion of what “old” is.

“Ageism,” as it is sometimes called, is probably the result of the lack of attention it gets due to the flashier, trendier stuff that seem to captivate the media and social media.

In any event, I am not a “clueless old man.” I would argue that whoever wrote that description is far more clueless than I am, and that such ignorance is getting tedious. 

As we both know from my last email, I am fit and agile and, if called upon, can go 30 feet up on a climbing wall.  

I told [another agent] the other day that on my very first job in the business 13 years ago, the photographer commented about my “weathered look.”

I did NOT give him a noogie, but I’m getting to the point now where it may be necessary to start knuckling some skulls. 

Thanks for hearing me out. No offense intended to you … I just needed to vent. And to explain why I am disinclined to audition for clueless people. 



Mickey Mantle — The Better Version

Austin Kleon blogged recently about trying to explain to his 5-year-old that artists — in this case, Kraftwerk — are no different from the rest of us, and that meeting them might not be as pleasing as one would think.

Kleon quotes Wendell Berry, who wrote “I am a man as crude as any,” and admits that he, too, suffers from the human condition. Although he loves meeting his readers, Kleon says that in his books they are getting the best version of him.

“In my day-to-day life,” he adds, “I am as confused and stupid and pessimistic as anybody.”

This is timely as I struggle to organize the material for a memoir that includes my experiences as a journalist who interviewed roughly 100 famous people. That doesn’t include chance encounters with Muhammad Ali, Jane Fonda, Janet Jackson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the hundreds of other people I wrote about who were special in their own way — and often more interesting than celebrities. (See Bio.)

But in thinking about Kleon’s point, former New York Yankee Mickey Mantle came to mind.

In early December of 1979, more than 10 years after he retired, Mantle and former teammate and best friend, Billy Martin, came to Honolulu to appear at a baseball camp put on by Pete Ward, a former teammate.

They flew in from Dallas and did a late afternoon media interview at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. It was quickly apparent that “Open Jackson,” as Mantle called himself, and “Waco Texan” (Martin) hadn’t spent the 3,800-mile flight discussing Proust.

They were slurring their words and kept up a line of banter that, as I wrote later, was “off-color, macho and chauvinistic” in an old-school, male-bonding kind of way.

Mantle and Martin played on a New York Yankees team that dominated baseball from the early 1950s into the mid-‘60s, and they did it at a time when New York was transforming itself into the Big Apple. It was the financial, media, entertainment, advertising and retail capital of the world,  the home of the The Tonight Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Today Show and just about any other show of significance.

It was the home turf of Frank Sinatra, martini in one hand, cigarette in the other. Bob Dylan was playing clubs in Greenwich Village; Thelonius Monk and Charlie Mingus played the Five Spot in the East Village; Leonard Bernstein had the New York Philharmonic; and uptown in Harlem, James Brown electrified the Apollo Theater.

New York was full of itself, the city of winners, and it doted on the Yankees. Mantle was the best of them, a marvel of speed, power, and skill, a legend in the making, and in his off-hours, the carousing, hard-drinking, adulterous prince of the city. He could show up at Toots Shor’s any night of the week knowing he would never have to pay for a drink. 

When he arrived in Honolulu at 48, though, his skin was blotched and puffy, there were creases around his eyes and he was sadly overweight. But he was well-oiled that evening, a happy, high-functioning drunk, and he was obliging and responsive during the interview. Martin was, as well.

I was the last media member to leave, and when we finished, the four of us — Mantle, Martin, Ward and I — left the suite together.

The Sheraton Waikiki was — and, I assume, still is — shaped like an S, and we were walking down a hallway that curved to the left, unable to see more than about 30 feet ahead.

I was to Mantle’s left. Martin and Ward were behind us, and I couldn’t help thinking how cool it was to be walking next to Mickey Mantle himself, even in his inebriated and shopworn condition.

And that’s when he passed gas. As in farted. As in broke wind, a prodigious thunderclap so startling and violent that it volleyed off the walls like a sonic boom.

Before anyone could react — in what would surely have been a “boys will be boys” fashion — our momentum carried us around the curve and face to face with two couples coming the other way. They were handsome senior citizens, white-haired Mainlanders decked out in polyester Hawaiian shirts and muumuus, enjoying their expensive and no doubt long-awaited Hawaiian vacation.

But their eyebrows were up in their hairlines, and on their faces were expressions of shock, embarrassment and scalding, Old Testament disgust. It took me back to being 11 years old, and every fiber of my being wanted to point at Mantle and say, “He did it!” because in their eyes we were all guilty.

I didn’t. I took one for The Mick that day, and when I wrote the story, I covered for him again. I informed the gentle readers of Honolulu that Mantle had belched, which wasn’t exactly putting a happy face on the event, but it was less objectionable.

Any way you slice it, though, Mantle had shown that he could be “as crude as any man.” But the story continues.

In January of 1994, after decades of playing the fool, he finally admitted that he was an alcoholic. He sought treatment, found religion and made amends to the people he hurt. He even spoke publicly about the dangers of alcoholism, concluding with the warning,  “Don’t be like me.”

Cancer of the liver led to a transplant, but the cancer returned and Mantle died in August 1995 at the age of 63. Which makes me sad even all these years later.

I wasn’t a Mantle fan growing up; my baseball allegiance was elsewhere. But I did admire him as a ballplayer, and I admire him even more as a human being for the way he rewrote the ending to his story. It took courage and humility to own the ugliness and dysfunction of his past, and the reward for his transformation wasn’t a standing ovation at Yankee Stadium, it was peace and self-respect, at last.

At his funeral, they played a song that was — another surprise — Mantle’s favorite, and a wonderful way to send him off: “Over the Rainbow.”

The Importance of Being Envious

My friend Steve Perras posted a picture on Facebook the other day of himself and his wife, Judy, in Paris, and it bothered me. In fact, it still does.

There’s an element of envy in it, but it’s not that simple. In fact, I’m happy for them. Although I see them only once a year these days, I still consider them dear friends. Steve is a talented and good-hearted guy, and they work hard at their real-estate business.

As Steve notes on Facebook, this is his first time abroad, and he is “Enchanted.” Good for him. He deserves it.

What bothers me is not that I’m not with them, but that in the past few years financial concerns have kept me from making trips to France and India, and two trips to Italy. Each time I said “No” instead of “Yes,” it pained me. And in two of those instances, I would have been traveling with my brothers, and that made it even more painful.

Steve is kind of a brother, too.  We met more than 20 years ago at the formation of a men’s group at a local church. When I first saw him, I thought, “What’s HE doing here?”

I didn’t like him, and I wasn’t smart enough to understand that “if you spot it, you’ve got it.”

What I saw that day was Steve’s mask, the face he put on for public consumption, and I decided he wasn’t trustworthy. But a few years later that I unexpectedly caught sight of my own public mask in a mirror, and it infuriated and appalled me. That wasn’t the “me” I thought I was. I wasn’t trustworthy, either.

By that time Steve and I had become good friends. We did so many things together with that group that I began to learn how to be a better person, a better friend, a better father, and a better brother. When I saw Steve last fall at a party, I was so happy I kissed him — on the cheek! — just as I do with my brothers.

So the thought the other day, “Damn! Perras is in Paris!” was a reality check.

In the old days, I would have been envious, because although I’ve been to Europe a few times, I’ve never been to Paris. I’ve always romanticized the place and thought I would go when I was with that special woman. I still feel that way.

The challenge is that I grew up with so much shame and self-doubt that I didn’t believe I deserved to be happy. The result of that thinking has been a world of trouble around finances and romances, and it’s why I haven’t made that special trip to Paris. Subconsciously I didn’t believe I deserved it.

But I know better now. I’ve worked hard to find my way out of the darkness and into the light. I know now that I do deserve happiness — and even to be “enchanted” once in a while. But turning that understanding into action is not easy. The old beliefs are deeply rooted.

Paris became known as “the city of light” during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. Steve’s post reminds me that whatever the seeming obstacles, I cannot and must not give up.

I don’t want or envy his happiness, I want my own. If anything, his good fortune reminds me to double down and be even more intentional about my own. Paris is waiting.


A Celebration of Grateful Hearts

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-4-05-55-pmThe Mt. Paran Church of God choir (in black), Grateful Hearts choir (in blue) and Mary Jane Theden                                             (black dress with white stripes). Cindy Clements photo.

On a rainy late September evening, a well-dressed crowd gathered in the great hall of a church on the northwest side of Atlanta to celebrate women who have recovered — or are recovering — from drug addiction.

The event was called “Beauty from Ashes,” borrowing from a scripture which says, in part, “He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted … to give them beauty from ashes.”

It was sponsored by an organization called Grateful Hearts.

Grateful Hearts began eight years ago when three women from Mt. Paran Church of God went to the Atlanta City Detention Center to teach a Bible study class to the women incarcerated there. But one of the women — Mary Jane Stafford Theden — took it personally when she learned that not only were the women poor and victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, but also that they were in jail on drug charges.

She had a family member with addiction issues, and the difficulty she experienced in her own life inspired her to help the women in jail.

“I wanted them to know that God has a plan for them,” she told the audience.

After several visits to the jail and in spite of her lack of credentials, Mary Jane asked the head of the jail to let her take one of the women and find a recovery program for her. He agreed.

“We were like Thelma and Louise in the car,” Mary Jane said. “We were listening to music and singing.”

Although she had no way of knowing it, she was on the cutting edge of what has become a growing practice around the country — diverting addicts to recovery programs rather than jailing them at taxpayers’ expense.

“When they get out of jail, they often have nothing but a bag with a few items and maybe a roll of toilet paper,” Mary Jane said. “They have no money, no phone and no one to call. And they get no support from family. That’s why they go back to the people they know — drug users.”

What began as a spiritual impulse became a ministry through the church and has gotten 65 women out of jail and into recovery. It has not only helped them deal with addiction, but also find work, reclaim their children and begin building self-esteem.

The work is time-consuming and exhausting, and Mary Jane does almost all of it. While training to become an addiction counselor, she also appears in court with the women, finds programs for them, and takes them to medical and counseling appointments. She helps with their children, takes them shopping for essentials, even teaches them manners and appropriate behavior.

When one of the women has a baby, Mary Jane visits her in the hospital because no one else does. And one night, she drove her white SUV with her white Golden Doodle in the back seat to Atlanta’s rough west end to rescue one of her women from a violent boyfriend.

No wonder, then, that some of the women call her “Mom.”

Mary Jane has been featured in a CNN segment, honored as “Citizen of the Year” by the Atlanta criminal justice system, and was to be the subject of a documentary proposed by a Los Angeles film company. (The proposal was declined.)

Grateful Hearts is on its own now, a 501-c-3 non-profit organization with a post office box of its own and an office — which used to be Mary Jane’s dining room. She has a part-time assistant, the help of a friend, Cindy Clements, and a seven-woman board of directors. At the fundraiser, she also had the assistance of several of her former University of Georgia sorority sisters.

She was joined onstage by Lucy Hall who runs a recovery program for women called Mary Hall Freedom House. Lucy says that when one of her women relapses — her euphemism for it is “doing more research” — they inevitably call Mary Jane to get them back into Freedom House.

“Mary Jane lives in Buckhead,” Lucy said. “She doesn’t have to do any of this.”

But she does, and donations make it possible. Thus the fundraiser, which attracted a crowd that was a mix of black and white; Buckhead and metro Atlanta; middle-aged and older; privileged and middle class. There was a buffet, a video featuring Mary Jane and four of her women, and music by the remarkable Mt. Paran Church of God choir and the smaller Grateful Hearts choir.

The event ended with the church choir singing while two lines of Grateful Hearts members and graduates — perhaps 25 in all — wound their way through the darkened hall, each of them carrying a lighted candle and a red rose.

They joined the choir on the steps of the stage, their faces aglow with joy, transformed at knowing that they are important and loved.

The audience rose and applauded long and loud, and cheered.

Note: I’ve known Mary Jane for nearly 15 years, so I am not impartial. Although I’ve written about the event as objectively as possible, I have no hesitation about expressing my admiration for her devotion to God and my awe at what they have accomplished.

For more information or to donate to Grateful Hearts, click here.

The Unexpected Pat Conroy

Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

About 20 years ago, I went to a writers’ conference at a rustic inn in the mountains of North Carolina. The featured authors were Gay Talese, Willie Morris, Winston Groom and John Logue, but they were upstaged by an unexpected guest — Pat Conroy.

I’ve referred to that weekend in the years since whenever Conroy’s name comes up, but only to talk about how he hijacked the weekend. But after reading about his death March 4 from pancreatic cancer, I realized that I’d overlooked something even more valuable.

I don’t know why Conroy was not invited that weekend, and I don’t recall that it was ever explained. Perhaps he was busy. Perhaps it never crossed the organizers’ minds. But Conroy said that he decided to attend when he learned that Talese’s wife, Nan, was on the panel.

Ms. Talese had her own imprint at Doubleday Books and, more importantly, she was Conroy’s editor. (Also on the panel was JoAnne Prichard, Morris’ wife and an editor at the University of Mississippi Press.)

The format was simple: The authors and editors sat at a long table at the front, and for a day and a half answered questions from an audience of about 150 writers and would-be writers. Although he had not been invited, Conroy could hardly have been expected to sit in the audience, so he sat at one end of the table next to Ms. Talese.

He was pudgy man with a ruddy face, a lively sense of humor and the unaffected air of a schoolboy. The easy, unassuming way he charmed the audience reminded me of the Irish, and something an visitor from Ireland once told me: “God created alcohol to keep the Irish from ruling the world.”

Which is not to suggest that Conroy had an issue with alcohol or, for that matter, that he was Irish — although I suspect he might have had some Irish in him. Whatever his lineage, his amiability added warmth and personality to what might have been a high-brow weekend.

Indeed, his exchanges with Ms. Talese seemed more like the good-natured bickering of a brother and sister.

I wrote two thousand pages,” Conroy commented early the first day, “and she took out the best twelve hundred pages, and what was left became ‘Beach Music.’”

That got a laugh, and Ms. Talese responded in kind. Taking out those twelve hundred pages, she said, saved Conroy from himself, and that, too, got a laugh.

Later, Conroy told a story about falling in love with a woman in the 1960s. To escape the fury of the the husband she was divorcing, Conroy took the woman and her child to Rome. They lived there for nearly two years and befriended the merchants in the piazza in their neighborhood.

You went to the piazza every day to get vegetables from the vegetable market, meat from the butcher, bread from the bakery, cheese, and so on,” Conroy said. “You worked your way around the piazza, and you got to know everybody and they knew you. It was like a big family. So when we decided to come back to America, we had to go to the piazza to say good-bye to everyone. So we would go into each of the stores and tell them we were leaving, and they would come out from behind their counters and hug us and cry and carry on. It was very emotional.”

He paused.

Compared to that,” he said, “leaving the Piggly Wiggly in South Carolina….”

The audience roared.

This was a Conroy I hadn’t expected. I had glanced at his works over the years — “The Great Santini,” “Prince of Tides,” etc — but I hadn’t read any of them. I was put off by what Conroy himself admitted was the “gloom and darkness” that pervades his work. I had enough angst of my own to entertain someone else’s, so I left Conroy to others.

But in person, I liked him, and I think most of the others must have, as well. He seemed real and approachable, not at all impressed with himself. And he was vulnerable in a way I’d never seen before.

Saturday afternoon, he told a story about his abusive father in such matter-of-fact tones that he might have been discussing grain futures. But then he added something — I don’t remember the exact quote — but the effect was astonishing. Without changing tone or delivery, without guile, he said that the episode convinced him that he could never win his father’s love, the thing he wanted most.

It was a remarkable moment. He had cast a spell, an enchantment that ended in heartbreak, and when I looked around the room people were wiping away tears and blowing their noses.  It was story-telling at its best and what made it so powerful was you knew it was true.

Conroy was by no means the whole show that weekend, nor did he dominate. The others were thoughtful and informative in a conventional give-and-take way, and yet I remember nothing they said and little about them.

In a world that seems driven by posturing, self-promotion and appearance, it was Conroy’s willingness to own his reality, to be who and what he was, that made him memorable. It would be nice to think that his final years were happier, that his story had a happy ending, but he was only 70 and I’m inclined to doubt it.  

A friend urged me the other day to read Conroy, and maybe I will. But whether I do or not is beside the point. I honor Pat Conroy because I saw him do the most generous thing a person can do — he gave himself.


Deepak Chopra and the Niche


Chopra screen shot                                                   Deepak Chopra


In late winter, 2001, I sat on a polished wooden bench in the lobby of the Fourteenth Street Playhouse in Atlanta waiting for Deepak Chopra.

Chopra had just finished another brilliant, seemingly off-the-cuff talk to a sold-out audience, many of whom paid $25 to sit on the floor in the aisles. Chopra was signing books at a small table, and the line stretched from one side of the vaulted room to the other. I had just spoken with one of his assistants, and she whispered to Chopra. He glanced over and nodded.

Toward the end of 2000, I was assigned to write an end-of-the year piece for asking experts for their expectations for the coming year. Chopra was one of those people, and we did the interview by telephone.Toward the end of the conversation, I mentioned that I had an idea for a TV series. He said he and his daughter were starting a TV production company, and suggested we talk after the holidays.

The idea had come to me during a conversation with a friend several years before when I was living in northwestern Connecticut. I was recently divorced, unable to find work and not sure what to do.

You need a niche,” my friend said, and a vision came instantly to mind.

I was walking under a flowering tree with a small man. We wore lavaliere microphones, and our conversation was being recorded by a camera. I knew immediately — and for no good reason I can think of — that this was not a not a one-off experience, but rather part of a series.

I also knew, one, that it was a very good idea and, two, it wasn’t mine. I wasn’t interested in TV, and I didn’t have the ego it takes to be a TV personality. And yet there was an inherent logic that crossed into the silvery realm of purpose: I’m good with people, I’m very good at interviewing them and I was passionate about the theme of the series.

I called Chopra a month later with a newfound sense of urgency. AOL and Time Warner — CNN’s parent company — had merged and I was among the many who were laid off in what came to be known as the worst deal of the century. To make matters worse, journalism was withering, the dot-com implosion was just beginning and jobs in the media were negligible.

So when I called Chopra, I was shopping not just an idea, but my services as well.

I can’t imagine how I kept him on the phone, because the longer we talked, the more certain I was that he wasn’t interested in me. And, why should he be? I was an obscure journalist. I had no on-camera or TV production experience.

Our connection all but died with that second conversation, and decided that Chopra wasn’t trustworthy. But a few months later, when he came to Atlanta on a speaking tour. I called his secretary and said I’d be there, and would like to say hello.

When he finished with the autographs that night, we had a conversation that was almost comically noncommittal.

In person — at least in public — Chopra has an energy field around him like the Klingon cloaking device that makes him remote, untouchable, all but invisible. For someone who is instantly recognizable, it’s probably a necessity. But it seems to forbid any kind of connection.

As for me, I wore the mask of my amiable public self, still hoping for a reprieve, still hoping something might yet come of our connection.

But after a brief, rather stiff exchange, I said goodbye and started across the lobby. He followed, and when I stopped to speak with a guy who earlier had commented on my jacket, Chopra joined us.

Tell him your name,” he said to me.

Tell him?” I said.

He nodded.

I looked at the guy and said, “John Christensen.”

Startled, he said, “That’s MY name!”

He was from Minnesota and had come to Atlanta to take a workshop with Chopra. Bemused, Chopra looked from one to the other and said, “What are the chances of that happening?”

You tell us,” I said. “You’re Mr. Science.”

Looking back on my connection with Chopra, I realized it wasn’t him I distrusted, it was myself.  I lacked the belief in myself I needed to play at his level, and had I gotten my wish, I don’t think they would have turned out well — and I would have lost my idea.

So, John Christensen was admitted to Chopra’s inner circle that weekend, it just wasn’t the John Christensen I was rooting for. And yet everything has worked out for the best. I’ve written two books, contributed to three others, gained on-camera experience and done some serious personal work, as well. 

I’m still not sure what to make of that vision. But I do know this: it’s still a great idea, and there’s nothing like it on television. 

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Acting My Age


While going through my files, I came across a story I wrote for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1983 about supermodels Marie Helvin and Jerry Hall.

Helvin, the brunette, was (but is no longer) the wife of David Bailey, the English photographer who discovered Twiggy. Helvin got her start modeling in Japan, and moved up to fashion work. She was 31 when we met and living in London where she had been voted as one of the 10 women with the best legs. You can see why.

Hall, the blonde, was (and is no longer) the common-law wife of Mick Jagger with whom she had four kids. A native of the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Hall had recently created a sensation by baring a breast for a Ralph Lauren ad. At 27, she was giggly and girlish, and had a wonderful, kid-sister quality that made you feel like her new best friend.

I interviewed them at Helvin’s parents’ Honolulu home where they were collaborating on a book about modeling. We talked about nudity — which they both agreed was OK if it was in Vogue — the rigors of runway work, modeling in shoes that were too small (Hall said she had big feet) and being covered with makeup that caused two weeks of acne (Helvin).

Two more things stand out. One is that while high-fashion work was fun and paid well, they said print work paid best because it was year-round. The other was that despite an abundance of beautiful younger models, the top money-makers even then were baby boomers over 30 — namely, Lauren Hutton and Cheryl Tiegs.

After the interview, photographer Ken Sakamoto suggested a photo of the three of the three of us, and it’s hanging on the wall in my office to remind me how unpredictable and amazing life can be.

Two months after that photo was taken, an 11-year relationship ended unhappily, and four years later I moved back to the mainland. In 2001, I was laid off from my job just as the dot-com bust began. I was in my 50s, journalism was withering and I couldn’t find work. I refinanced my house — twice — freelanced, worked in a warehouse and had waking nightmares of living under a bridge.

I had supported myself all my adult life, and I was good at what I did. I felt helpless and lost.

But in 2004, a director named Steve Colby asked if I’d ever done any acting. I hadn’t. “You should consider it,” he said. “You can make a lot of money for not very much work.”

His mentor, George Watkins, invited me to his 60th birthday party, and on the wall of his office I discovered a picture of George with … Jerry Hall.

George introduced me to an agent that night who agreed to take me on. She told me to have some photos taken and, glancing at my graying hair, added, “And don’t do anything to your hair.”

My first job was a photo shoot for BellSouth where the 30-ish photographer put things in perspective.

“You’re great,” he said. “Clients are looking for people like you who have that weathered look.”

Since then I’ve been the aging boomer as a doctor, hospital patient, professor, homeowner, executive, consumer, golfer, gardener, grandfather, etc. I don’t get a lot of work, but what I do get is a godsend.

And Colby was right: three years ago I was hired as an extra in a Delta Airlines commercial, but was recognizable in the commercial and paid as a principal. That “bump,” as it’s called, enabled me to pay off the balance transfers that kept me afloat financially, and a personal loan as well.

This is my tenth year at it, and I’m doing pretty well. Spiritually, mentally and emotionally, my life is better than it’s ever been. I’m recovering financially, too, but as far as I can see retirement is not an option. On the other hand, I’m getting paid to act and do print work in my dotage, which proves that when it comes to miracles I can’t see very far at all.


An Art Lesson with Matisse

Le Rifain assis

‘Le Rifain assis’ by Henri Matisse

Someone asked Robert McKee recently how to write stories that were “timeless” and “immortal.”

The question is absurd, of course. If McKee knew, he’d be writing them himself. Still, his screenwriting seminars are legendary, and his former students include Peter Jackson, William Goldman, John Cleese, Drew Carey and Russell Brand. Twenty of his former students were involved in 12 films that were nominated for Oscars this year.

And, thus, his answer: “It’s a mystery.”

Some stories, he said, “just capture something ineffable that you cannot quantify and cannot measure … a magical quality.” They are told “in a certain way,” and become classics — he mentioned The Wizard of Oz and The Godfather — while others are merely “temporal.”

I’m pulling together material for a book, and I’m stalling. The stalling is old behavior. I did it before starting both of the books I’ve written, but this time the material is more personal and appears to require a demanding level of vulnerability.

I’ve spent a lifetime acting cool and invulnerable, and I’m not sure about what the payoff might be in change. And I wonder if it’s possible to pull off being personal and vulnerable without coming across as self-absorbed. I don’t expect to write anything timeless or immortal, but I don’t want to embarrass myself, either.

But as I was watching McKee, I was reminded of an experience I had at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A friend and I had gone to see the Matisse exhibit in October 1992, and it was so crowded that the recorders and headsets which provide a pre-recorded tour of the exhibit weren’t available. That was fine with me. Although I had (and have) no art education, I wanted to experience Matisse on my terms and make up my own mind.

So we ambled from room to room, following what I recall as a chronological rendering of Matisse’s career. It was pleasant and entertaining, and I especially appreciated his passion for color.

Then we entered a rectangular room filled with people filing around the perimeter, listening to the audio tour and studiously studying the paintings. On the long, opposite wall was a large painting. I’m guessing it was five feet by seven, but it’s possible that the impression it made has magnified the painting in my memory as well.

There was a table with a bowl of fruit, two or three wine bottles and a violin. Maybe there were flowers, too, and my recollection insists that it was painted in muted tones.

There was nothing provocative or unusual. The objects were commonplace and even mundane unless you consider a violin exotic.

Why, then, was I standing in the middle of the room staring? And why were there tears in my eyes?

Then I got it: this was what made art art.

It wasn’t what Matisse painted, but how he painted it. I don’t know anything about composition, color theory, texture or technique, but I do know there was an energy, a power, that made those ordinary, everyday objects extraordinary.

I don’t know if Matisse set out to paint something timeless and immortal, but surely he was inspired and eighty years later that inspiration still radiated from the painting. It was like seeing those things for the first time.

It was an amazing gift, and an unexpected insight into the nature of creativity. Why would a great artist paint a table, fruit and wine bottles? Because they moved him, and he wanted to express it. Probably he had to express it. That others might also be moved was a bonus.

I couldn’t find the painting I was taling about online, but “Le Rifain assis’ was painted during that same period.