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 CNN.com 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.

It’s the Swing, Tiger!

Screen shot Fred Vuich.SptsIllus

Photo by Fred Vuich, Sports Illustrated

Word that Tiger Woods is going to miss the Masters tournament after having back surgery was a big surprise to a lot of people, but not to devotees of the Mike Austin swing. In fact, Austin himself predicted it.

Austin is the subject of my recently published e-book, Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter. In 1974, he hit a shot still exceeds anything on the PGA Tour by 40 yards, and although he died in ’05 without getting the recognition he craved, Austin has a cult following on the Internet.

As for Tiger Woods, here’s an except from the book:

“The only thing I personally question about Tiger is how a guy with such athletic talent, such intelligence, and such work ethic . . . could not figure out a proper golf swing that wouldn’t nearly cripple him by the time he was 40,” wrote Canadian blogger D.J. Watts. “Each swing he developed after his ‘97 Masters win has been increasingly unsound mechanically, and I can’t figure it out. I’m completely mystified.”

Steve Pratt, a teaching pro from California who apprenticed in the early 1990s with Austin, trotted out a list of Woods’ injuries and blamed the modern swing.

“Right Achilles, left Achilles, left tibia fracture, left knee ACL tear, inflamed neck facet, sprained wrist, four knee surgeries,” he wrote. “Mike Austin saw Tiger swing once and said, ‘He’s headed for trouble.’

“Unfortunately,” Pratt added, “I don’t think he’s done with injuries. After all the left knee and heel problems he’s had, and using a technique that I feel is higher risk on his lower spine than necessary . . . it is just a matter of time before he develops disc and lower back issues….”

Tiger’s issues were just part of the story. Another excerpt:

In 2008, a report published by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine cited a two-year study which found that 60 percent of golf professionals and 40 percent of amateurs sustained “either a traumatic or overuse injury while golfing.” Low back pain was the most common injury by far, followed by those to the elbow, shoulder and wrist. The society also cited a PGA study which found that one out of three golfers had low back problems that lasted for at least two weeks.

In August 2011, the PGA Tour posted an article on its website by Sean Cochran, who was identified as an expert in golf fitness. Cochran begins this way: “Statistics indicate one out of every two golfers will incur a lower back injury at some point in their playing careers.

After describing the “axial rotations” and “angular velocities” that affect the spine and pelvis, Cochran wrote: “Every time golfers swing, they are subjecting their lower spine to eight times their body weight.”

No wonder, then, that injuries have reached epidemic proportions, although it has somehow eluded the notice of the media. I put together a list of Tour pros with significant injuries based on comments on telecasts or in the media, and came up with 30. It ranges from older golfers like Fred Couples and Retief Goosen (backs) to young ones like Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler (also backs).

The problem is the modern swing which winds the upper body against the stationary lower body to create all that torque.

The alternative is Austin’s lyrical, old school swing which allows the front heel to rise and fall with the weight shifts, taking pressure off the spine and pelvis. The proof of its effectiveness is that Austin was hitting 300-yard drives well into his 70s without injury. When he stopped, it was because he had a stroke.

The Golf Channel’s Martin Hall featured Austin on his School of Golf show in April 2013, saying Austin was “years ahead of his time.” He added, “Anything you can find on Mike Austin is going to help you hit the fall farther, no doubt.”

A golfer named Cyd posted the following comment on the network’s website:

“I’ve had three back surgeries and I find the Mike Austin swing to be easy on my back. I can go out and hit hundreds of balls and suffer no back pain. With a conventional swing and the torque that is placed on my back, I cannot hit 100 balls and play a round in the same day. Not to mention that after hitting 100 balls using a conventional swing I can barely walk for a day. With the Mike Austin swing, I can practice and play. No problems!”

Austin made some choices that cost him the recognition he wanted so badly, but he was right about Tiger. It would be ironic — and redemptive — if during his rehabilitation Tiger used Austin’s powerful and effortless old-school swing to protect his body and revive his career.


Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter is available on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Smashwords and other e-book retailers.

Images on this site belong to their respective copyright owners and are used only to enhance the commentary. If your photographs appear here against your will, contact me and they will be removed.

Too Good To Be True



Bob and I are having lunch, and he asks what’s going on with my book. Bob’s semi-retired, a marketing guy who’s done business with Citicorp, Johnson & Johnson, the New York Times and Quincy Jones.

“Not much,” I say. “Sold 69 copies, mostly on Amazon. Two friends and an ex-girlfriend have read it. Four copies were sold in Germany, which means more Germans  have read the book than friends and family.”

It also means I’ve done a terrible job of promoting it. Unless your name is Grisham or Rowling these days, authors don’t just write a book, they must promote it, too.

I’m not comfortable with the idea because it seems like self-promotion, and self-promotion has always struck me as bad manners.

Thus my book — (self-promotion alert!) “Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter”  — languishes at Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, etc.

Bob knows all this, and is not impressed. “What’s your USP?” he says.


“What’s your USP? Your unique selling proposition.”

I’m stumped. I’ve got an elevator speech about the book, but it’s not very convincing.

Bob continues. “Didn’t you say that if the guy you wrote about had told the truth, he would have gotten the recognition he deserved?”


“Then that’s your unique selling proposition.”


It seemed obvious at the time, but later I wondered how you sell that. It sounds like an elementary school maxim like, “Look both ways before crossing.” Thus, “Always tell the truth.”

Although the book is about a golfer, it’s also a character study and a morality tale. It’s a golf book for people who don’t care about golf.

The truth is that Mike Austin was a journeyman golf pro who lived and taught in Los Angeles. In 1974, he hit a 515-yard drive in a tournament at the age of 64, a shot that defies belief and the laws of physics. Forty years later no one on the pro golf tour has come within 40 yards of it.

Austin also had a beautiful and unconventional swing that has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. Perhaps more important, it has the potential to save golfers from the epidemic of injuries caused by the conventional swing. An epidemic, by the way, that the media has either ignored or overlooked.

Those accomplishments alone ought to be enough to make Austin a household name. That he is not has to do with his refusal to tell the truth. He was the subject of an earlier book and a DVD, and Austin consistently lied to interviewers about his past when he could have told the truth.

In fact, he not only lied, he told outrageous lies. But they were lies that were not easy to prove or disprove, and he was encouraged by his proximity to Hollywood, where truth is an endangered species.

Austin not only numbered Hollywood celebrities among his students  (Howard Hughes, Jack LaLanne, and the Quaid brothers), he also had a few roles in Hollywood. Although he was primarily an extra, he had a cameo in the 1983 Michael Douglas thriller “The Star Chamber.”

Otherwise, Austin held forth at driving ranges around L.A. No crowd was too big and an audience of one would — and did — suffice. Austin’s niece watched him hold a half-dozen doctors spellbound in an examining room at the Mayo Clinic where he’d gone for a facelift. None of the stories he told them were true, but they didn’t know it and Austin acted as if he thought they were.

And perhaps he did. He could be very convincing, and over and over again people told me Austin was the most memorable person they’d ever met. He was Dos Equis’ “most interesting man in the world” before Dos Equis ever thought of it.

Hence the fascination. Despite truly noteworthy accomplishments and a charismatic personality, Mike Austin couldn’t tell the truth.

Why? Read the book and find out.

The Benefits of Rejection

Safer 2

                                                     John Safer

In early 2007, I sent a 4,500-word article called “Mike Austin and the Swing Brotherhood” to The New Yorker. The rejection note was genteel and almost kindly, regretting that the piece didn’t fit their editorial needs “despite its evident merit.”

My guess is that “despite its evident merit” was a stock reply. And it was also my guess that Mike Austin was a good story, no matter what they thought at the New Yorker.

But then there was the matter of John Safer. 

I met John while writing a book about a foundation in Washington. He is a brilliant man who made his fortune in real estate and banking, but whose passion is sculpture. He created the towering and ethereal work in front of the Air & Space Museum in Washington, and scores of other graceful and inspiring works as well in museums, public places and private collections. If you’re not familiar with his work—and especially if you could use a lift—check out his website. And bear in mind that he’s self-taught.

For all his accomplishments — which include persuading his Bethesda, Maryland, neighbor, Eugene McCarthy, to run for the Democratic nomination for President in 1968 —John is an even finer human being. And he is witty and droll, which is crucial when you’re a golfer, and he was a club champion.

After reading the Austin article, John suggested I write about something else — I don’t think he approved of Austin — so I did some early spadework on a book about John. But after a Washington magazine did a long piece about him, John — who is 91 — decided he’d rather put his energy into his art.

So that was another rejection. Two, really — the book about John and the Austin idea.

But I couldn’t let the Austin mystery go. How could a 64-year-old borderline genius, using comparatively primitive equipment and a gorgeous, lyrical swing that is golf’s equivalent of a Safer sculpture, hit such a prodigious shot, flirt with fame and then die unrequited and unnoticed?

knew there was a good story there, but I didn’t realize how good it was until I decided to update the piece and post it on my website. What began as a few follow-up calls became a cascade of information. Every idea, every name, every twist in the story led me forward, like Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs through the forest.

The PGA’s archivist in Florida pointed me to an author in Ireland. An idea about atmospheric conditions led to a geophysicist in Colorado. A conversation with a golf pro led to Tiger Wood’s former coach in Beijing. A search for information about the tournament where Austin hit his record shot led to an article unearthed by a librarian in New Jersey.

Personal connections led to Austin’s old pals, more recent friends and family members. Looking for context for Austin’s life led to detours into golf’s Golden Age. Questions about equipment led to two of the country’s oldest custom club makers, the president of another company, and a super-sized long driver who’s got an amazing tale of his own.

My passion is what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story,”  and my favorite pieces have involved persevering when no one else cared. The story that emerged in this case is far different and far better one than the piece John Safer read and The New Yorker rejected. 

Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter (which will be published soon as an ebook) is not so much a golf book as it is the story of an unforgettable character who happens to be a golfer. 

It would be great if it succeeds financially, but if I never sell a copy — digital or in four-color splendor — I’m happy. I ignored the doubters, I solved the mystery, I discovered some interesting things about myself,  and I had a great time. 

Why Isn’t This Man Famous?

Photo courtesy of Joe Austin

Photo courtesy of Joe Austin

The cool thing about being a writer is that even procrastinating has a payoff if you’re paying attention. So when I should have been blogging the other day about my new book — which is about a guy who wanted to be a star and wasn’t —  I read interviews with a couple of guys who are: Ginger Baker and Yo-Yo Ma.

Baker was the brilliant and irascible drummer with Cream, one of the first supergroups of the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll era. Baker was cranky and rude in his prime, and he’s still cranky and rude, and the funny thing about the recent interview is that people keep hoping he’s changed.

I used to be a rock critic and feature writer and interviewed a lot of well-known people, including musicians. Although I knew next to nothing about music, I can’t think of anyone who wasn’t cooperative, pleasant and even engaging. Albert King, B.B. King, the Allman Brothers (Gregg, Dicky Betts and Butch Trucks), Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, Vassar Clements, Carlos Montoya, ZZ Top (all three guys)  — never a harsh word.

Harry Nilsson talked about gun control after John Lennon’s death. Maria Muldaur told me she went to a holy roller church and spoke in tongues. Herbie Hancock said he used a Buddhist chant to help find parking spots in Manhattan. And backstage after a Jethro Tull concert, I watched a bearded Jesus freak in overalls and T-shirt try to “save” Ian Anderson.

Anderson, haggard and looking 74 rather than 24, shook his head and said, “I wish I could believe you, man.”

I also interviewed a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore who performed with orchestras around the country on weekends: Yo-Yo Ma. He seemed like a nice kid then, and judging from the recent interview, he’s still a nice guy.

Ma told the Times something that brought me back to my book about Mike Austin — Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter. Ma said “the thing I’m most interested in is figuring out what makes people tick….”

I’ve always been interested in the person behind the publicity still, what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” In Austin’s case, I wanted to find out why he isn’t famous.

In 1974, the 64-year-old Austin drove a golf ball 515 yards, a world record that still exceeds anything ever hit on the PGA tour by 40 yards.

Everything seemed aligned in Austin’s favor: his students included Howard Hughes, Jack LaLanne and the Quaid brothers. He sang light opera in local productions. He was a fringe character in Hollywood and appeared in the Michael Douglas thriller, “The Star Chamber.” He was a war hero with three doctorates.

And yet despite being the subject of a DVD and a book that celebrated him as  “a real-life Indiana Jones,” Austin died an angry man and virtually unknown. And now, oddly enough, he’s probably better known than when he was alive.

I wanted to know why, and I learned that the truth is a lot more interesting than any of the stories he told his pals at the driving range.

Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter will be published later this month. Here’s an excerpt:


         The last time he saw Austin, John Anselmo was giving a clinic at the Navy Golf Course in Cypress, California, about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles. It was early 2004. Anselmo was 81; Austin was 89.

“I was doing a little clinic about Tiger Woods,” Anselmo said, “and I look over and there’s Mike with his wife, Tanya, who was a very beautiful woman and a wonderful person. I went over to say hello, and Mike was in a wheelchair. That was a shock.”

Anselmo didn’t remember much about what was said that afternoon. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and their memories were refracted through the astonishment at what time had done to them. An eye injury had ended Anselmo’s dreams of playing professionally when he was young, and his 60-year career as a teaching pro had been interrupted by colon cancer. But when he was interviewed for this book, he was 89, healthy and in Beijing where he and his son, Dan, had opened an Anselmo Golf Academy similar to ones they operated in Huntington Beach and Irvine.

Austin, once powerful and movie-star handsome, had suffered a stroke in 1988 that left the right side of his body paralyzed. A broken hip from a fall in 2003 had so dispirited him that friends feared he would die. Although somewhat recovered, his hands shook and he drooled from the corner of his mouth. But seeing Anselmo warmed his heart.

“John,” he said, “they haven’t given you enough credit for teaching Tiger.”


Copyright: John Christensen 2013. All rights reserved.

Happiness Is Viral

A friend of mine said the other day how fortunate she was that her small company had recently been acquired by a larger company. The new relationships were harmonious, she said, and she and her colleagues were able to continue doing what they had been doing all along, only now with the resources and support they needed.


It was especially gratifying because the bigger company had sifted through hundreds of applications before settling on her, and she is 64 years old. 


I congratulated her and added, “You’re making the world a better place.”


“Whoa,” she replied. “Now, that point — I don’t get that. I’m so not saving the world or contributing.”


The point I was making is that people who are happy in their work and happy in their lives make a huge contribution in everyday life, because happiness is “viral.” It doesn’t matter what you do for a living; it’s who you are as a human being. Or as Jesus put it, concerning the Pharisees’ hundreds of idiotic rules, “It isn’t what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, but what comes out of it.”


A Swami Comes to Town


The joy my friend feels affects not just her clients, but anyone she comes into contact with — family members, shop owners, the clerks where she does business. Even walking down the street, she can have an experience that uplifts both parties.


It has happened to me a number of times, but never quite as memorably as when I was living in Honolulu. (I may have written about this before, but I think it’s worth re-telling in this context.)


A woman came to the newspaper office where I worked hoping to get someone one to write a story about her guru, Swami Muktananda. Muktananda was in Hawaii for an extended stay and holding public gatherings.


As a meditator and longtime “seeker of wisdom and truth,” to quote the lyric from the musical How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I was curious and more than willing. But my editor wasn’t interested.


A Walk on the Beach


So the following Sunday, I was walking on the beach in Kahala with my girlfriend. Kahala is a handsome part of town on the other side of Diamond Head from garish and touristy Waikiki. And it was handsomer still in those days, before new money started tearing down the fine old island-style homes and erecting overwrought monuments to vanity.


As we walked the beach, we happened upon a group of perhaps 15 people sitting on a lawn not far from where the sand began. They were clustered around a small, Indian man wearing a maroon knit cap and saffron robe. No one was speaking, and while everyone else’s eyes were on him, he seemed oblivious to their presence.


I knew instantly it must be Muktananda, and I gazed at him curiously. And Muktananda, for his part, gazed right back at me. There was a merry twinkle in his eye and his smile filled me with warmth and a quiet joy. Infused by his benevolence, I returned his smile and felt as I walked away that in those few moments I had experienced unconditional love.


A Collateral Benefit


In later years a scandal arose around Muktananda, but there was a purity in our experience that I’m talking about here, and I don’t think what happened was exceptional. In fact, it brings to mind another wonderful saying attributed to Jesus: “These things I have done, ye shall do and greater things also.”


The point is this: we all have the ability to share our joy with others, and often we transmit that light and love without even realizing it. I went through a very difficult period when I was still working at that newspaper over the end of my relationship with that woman, and when I finally pulled out of it, the corner of the newsroom where I worked brightened up demonstrably.


The collateral benefit of these viral transactions is that in our unwitting charity to others, as we are grateful at being so happy and the expansiveness of our generosity, we also refill with joy. 

Thus the saying that it is more blessed to give than to receive.The buzz of feeling joyful is multiplied by the happiness one gets from sharing it.


And that, despite my friend’s protest to the contrary, is how she is, indeed, making the world a better place.