Monthly Archives: August 2005

Living with uncertainty

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I’d discovered there’s not a clean line from being an employee muddling along in a corporate environment to being a successful independent contractor on fire with passion, purpose and authenticity.
In fact, I have found the going rather slow and heavy, and none of the things I’ve done since leaving CNN (writing, editing, even working in a warehouse) has provided enough money to live on. So when two director-friends urged me to take up acting and modeling, I listened. Not because it fulfilled an egoic need, but because the one who first suggested it said, "You can make a lot of money for not very much work."

The appeal of making a lot of money for any amount of work was profound. And it wasn’t just the money. There was also a certain logic, even a magic to it.

One of the projects I wanted to pursue was a TV series, an idea that first came to me one afternoon in 1994 when I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I was a freelance writer living in Connecticut, and a friend said to me, "You need a niche."

A vision flashed in my head: I was walking in a garden strewn with white apple blossoms. Next to me was a small man. We both wore microphones, and we were being filmed by a TV crew. I had never had a desire to be in televison – fact is, I had contempt for it as an insult to intelligence – but I knew immediately what what that vision was: a TV series.

I had a file drawer full of material, stuff I’d been saving for years on the premise that it was fascinating and, taken as a whole, represented a powerful and positive alternative to the world force-fed us by mainstream media. I also had decades of experience interviewing people, many of them gifted, accomplished and often famous, and I was good at it.

Over the next two years, a series of coincidences and fortuitous meetings with key people provided me with enough information to put together a viable proposal which I sent to PBS in Washington (Virginia, actually). The response was positive, but wary: We like your idea, and we’d like to see it when it’s at the rough-cut stage.

To have a show at the rough-cut stage, I would have to raise a lot of money, hire a crew, shoot a pilot, edit the footage, etc., and that’s where I hit the wall. The idea was good – and still is – and I knew I had the ability to be a host/narrator. But I didn’t have the courage of my convictions. I didn’t have the nerve.

About two years ago, motivated by an argument I’d had with the woman I was seeing, I began doing a form of breath-oriented therapy that brought to the surface all the old shopworn beliefs that had been running me since childhood. It also helped me blow out a lot of emotional ballast, and I began to feel as if I were awakening from a deep and rather unpleasant dream.

But I needed work, and acting and modeling were attractive for three reasons. One, the money was good. Two, my age worked against me in the corporate world, but it was a plus in this world. Three, it would provide experience in front of the camera, which I would need for the TV project.

In the past 18 months, I’ve made enough to cover my expenses — acting classes, photographs, etc. — but not enough to live on. Meanwhile, parting with one of my agents – I have two others – and the draw-down on my cash reserves have brought me close to the point where I vowed I would start looking for a job.

But over the past 10 days, I’ve had five auditions and gotten two jobs – one a commercial for a natural gas company, the other a print job for Home Depot. I spent last Friday as an extra for a holiday commercial, and today I audition for an AARP commercial.

If the work keeps coming, I’ll be fine. If it doesn’t, I’ll have to put my ideals on the shelf and look for a job. Four years ago, this kind of uncertainty would have put me in a state of high anxiety. But today I am calm. I know it’s going to be OK.  I’ll explain next time.

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You make the call

I was planning a follow-up to my beach trip, to write about seeing fins
in the water 30 yards away, about Andie McDowell jogging on the beach
and the cop who shot a desk at the Georgetown, S.C. police department.
Instead, I’m responding to an email I got the other day from Mike
Greenberg. It reads:

I was pondering this question with
several coffee shop “buds.” Here is what one said (paraphrased):
Coworkers are not your friends; they are coworkers. Business associates
are not your friends; they are business associates. Coffee shop buddies
are not your friends; they are just people you sometimes see if you
both just happen to be in the same coffee shop. According to this same
coffee shop bud, a friend is someone you do other stuff with, spend
time at each others’ homes, enjoy extracurricular activities with, etc.

A friend had this definition: A
friend is someone you can call between the hours of 12 a.m. and 6 a.m.
with a problem or issue and get a concerned ear.
In our society with all its pressures to work, work, work, people do
not make time for friendship – real friendship.


I agree, up to a point. We are busy and friendships do take effort. Also,
generally speaking, I would add that men are not as good at friendships as women, and
that’s a cultural issue. My parents had friends they socialized with,
and my mother had close friends, but my father did not. If he had, and
if he’d had the ability to open up and unburden himself, he might still
be alive. But he wasn’t so different from a lot of men in his
generation – and the generations before – so we’re short on role models
in that regard.

But it is the generalizing in Mike’s last sentence that concerns me,
because it can be an excuse for accepting things as they are. And it
can blind us to our power and responsibility. (By the way, there is no
criticism of Mike here. I’m talking about my own experience.)

If I accept that everyone is busy and there’s no time for friendships, it makes me sound helpless. Implicit in that statement
is the thought, “What can I do? That’s the way things are….” In fact, I’m only
experiencing the consequences of choices I’ve made.

Granted, most of those choices were made when I was young and powerless
and not very wise,  and when I was influenced by things like a
father who didn’t
have friends. Nevertheless, those choices been driving my life ever

Understanding that, I must next ask, How do I show up as a friend?

The answer is not very well. I tend to isolate myself and wait for
others to initiate things. I could be far more thoughtful. I could pick
up the phone and call. I could set up a golf date, or call a friend for
coffee. But too often I do not, and then find myself wondering where my
friends are.  Since I am neglectful as a friend, it can hardly be
a surprise that my friends are  similarly slack and neglectful.

The trouble with conventional
wisdom — this case, that we’re too busy to have friends –- is that it falls back on
solace and a rueful smile, a shrug and a bow to the status quo.
And it is a lie. If I don’t like what I see, I can change. I can make
new choices.

A friend told me the other day she was having problems
with her relationship. “I guess I’m too old for this,” she said. “I’m tired of relationships.”

I told her my impression was that she was tired of having relationships the
way she’d always had them.  I reminded her of the pop definition of
insanity — doing the same things you’ve always done, and expecting a
different outcome — and suggested counseling or therapy, with or without her lover.

She looked startled:  “My friend who has cancer said the same thing.”

I took a workshop several years ago where one of the aphorisms was “An upset is
an opportunity to learn the truth.” Whether it’s about a relationship
or cancer or friendships, a disturbance tells me I’m at cross-purposes
with something, and usually that means a disconnect between deep desires and my habitual way of life. 

I can either give in to “the way things are” –- people are too busy for
friendships, I’m tired of relationships, etc. –- or I can rifle through
my beliefs and behavior patterns, throw out what doesn’t work and make new
That’s called “doing the work.”

Unlike the spotted owl and the snail darter, human beings can change.
But doing the work takes real commitment, and in our culture it is
easier to rationalize, medicate, escape, deny. Either way, the choice is ours.

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Beach lullabye

GEORGETOWN, S.C. – Driving north from Charleston, listening to Clapton
singing a Robert Johnson song about a woman in Vicksburg, it crossed my
mind that it might be fun to stop at the Kicking Horse Saloon and have
a beer. Not so much because I wanted a beer as to share the mood with

But the Kicking Horse wasn’t open. The only car in the lot was for
sale, and truth is I wouldn’t have stopped anyway. It was the first
time I’d been out of Atlanta in months. The drive had been easy,
Clapton was in fine form – a better bluesman than a rocker, I think –
and I was almost to the beach.

In less than an hour I was greeted by three of my four brothers and their
families; my older daughter, her husband and their 14-month-old son;
and my aunt, cousin and her son.

When our parents were alive, Christmas in Connecticut was a command
performance. But with families of our own, we’ve shifted the reunions
to summer and met at beaches from Delaware to the Outer Banks and now,
for the second year, in South Carolina.

We could easily find something more convenient – one brother lives in
Colorado, one in Ohio and another in Connecticut; my daughter lives in
Charlotte; my aunt and cousins in Detroit; and I in Atlanta – and we
tried it once.

We rented a house on a lake in Michigan to coincide with a wedding, but
the lake, fed by chilly springs, was nippy even in the heat of summer.
Lake Michigan was even colder.

The ocean, on the other hand, has usually been welcoming and bathwater
warm. The waves are big enough for body surfing, and powerful enough to
yank your pockets inside out, power-flush your sinuses and shove you
halfway to the North Carolina line. But they are not life-threatening.

It rained Saturday morning at 6, announced by a howling wind that
streaked past the windows, slammed a door somewhere and woke everyone
in the house. It rained for 20 minutes and hurried up the coast.

Otherwise, we’ve been lucky. To the north the sky over Myrtle Beach 35
miles away has looked catastsrophic. To the west, armies of glowering
clouds exchange muffled volleys of thunder that sound like artillery exchanges.
But until today, we’ve had full days at the beach and cocktails on the
deck under blue skies.

As I write, however, I see a fine light rain falling
on a boulevard landscaped with crepe myrtles, palmettos, small pines
and boxwoods. It’s been like this all day.

We are here for the sun, of course, and the powerful immediacy of
what Jimmy Buffett called Mother Ocean – which, among others things, cured
my grandson, McRae, of a rash on his legs.

But it is the sound that I keep noticing. It is the steady, insistent push of the wind,
which has been blowing out of the southeast since we got here, and the
constant churning of the ocean spilling over and over, upon itself and upon the shore.

The natural order of things goes something like this: we breakfast,
we go to the beach where we put on sunscreen and read for a time. But that
sound, that steady rustling of sea and wind, as constant and faithful
as a beating heart, washes over you, penetrating gently, and in
time you lower the book to your chest, and doze.

You awaken, play in the waves, towel off, read…doze again.

Brother Dave was amazed to see his 15-year-old son Charles – 6-foot-4
and growing so fast I wondered if he sleeps under a Grow-Light – deep asleep on the couch in the family room despite the activity around him. At home he never naps.

My grandson napped under a towel on his father’s chest while his
father napped in a beach chair 60 feet from the ocean’s edge. Nephew Eric slept so long this morning that my brother, Jeff,  went to check on him. He was face down, wrapped
in a quilt, cross-wise on the bed, feet hanging over the side.

Night before last, brother Phil went to bed at 9. His explanation — “I
didn’t get my nap today” — triggered several moments of silence and
deep reflection among the rest of us, as if he’d been stricken with a mysterious ailment.  Maybe tomorrow would be better….

As I prepare to post this, I see that Phil’s daughter, Jennifer, 16, is stretched out on the couch in the family room…napping.

So there it is: others gather for golf or tennis, for
horseshoes or sailing. The Christensens gather to nap.

There are, of course, layers of meaning in family dynamics, and no doubt someone
could mine ours for its rich deposits. But I’m on vacation, and to be honest, I’m too tired. I need a nap.

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Getting fired: the next right thing

We were standing in a gloomy hallway in midtown, a dozen or so actors
waiting to audition for a network promo. J was leaning against the
wall, knitting with bluish gray yarn that went nicely with her gray

“You remind me of Madame LaFarge in ‘Tale of Two Cities,'” I said to her. “Sitting by the guillotine, watching heads roll…”

She said, “I think it was Madame DeFarge.”

She was right, and it wasn’t long after that – speaking of heads
rolling – that I realized I’d been fired.

I asked, M, the first actor I met and a friend and mentor, which agent
had sent her to the audition. This is small talk among actors, a
harmless topic in a business that is extremely competitive, limited in
opportunities and rife with insecurity.
XYZ, she said.

 I asked G, a handsome, soft-spoken guy with whom I often compete for parts, who sent him: XYZ.
I asked D, with whom I appeared in a commercial on CNN last year: XYZ.

For the 20 months I’ve been in the business, XYZ has been one of my
agents, too. In fact, XYZ was my first agent and got me my first job, a
one-day modeling job as a BellSouth executive.

But the last job I did for XYZ was last fall. The only contact I’d had
with XYZ since was when the agent – I’ll call her Susan – called me in
early May and raged at me for taking an audition with another agent. I
have – or had – three agents in Atlanta, a measure not so much of my
ability, but rather of the marketability of my “look” as a graying baby

“We’ve had this conversation before,” Susan had said. “I told you we
wanted preference. I discovered you. I got you started in this
business. You owe it to me to give us preference.”

First, Susan didn’t discover me. A director invited me to a party and
asked M to introduce me to Susan. In effect, I was handed to Susan.
Two, we did have that conversation before, and it was unpleasant.

“Preference” means that if another agent calls wanting to send me to an
audition, I would have to call XYZ and see if they were also working
that job. If they were, I had to go with XYZ, even though they hadn’t
called me. If not, I could then call the first agent back and go
through her agency. (I’m masking identities, because I’m not looking to
show anybody up. The issue is what matters, not the agency or the agent.)

My feeling was first-come, first-served. But I agreed during that first
conversation because I was new to the business and thought that’s how
it was done. And for some, it is done that way.

But in May I told her no preference. One, I didn’t think it was
fair. And, two, “You’re not getting me any work. This is the first time
I’ve heard from XYZ this year. I need money. I need work.”

“Well, you need to be more involved in your career,” she said. “You should be be calling us.”

To a certain extent, this is true. But even a year ago, I realized I
didn’t care for the way Susan did business. She was selfish, petulant,
and abrasive. She blamed others, never took responsibility, never
admitted she might be wrong. And one of the keys to creating the kind
of life I want  is being around positive, upbeat people.

During that May conversation, Susan said angrily, “Come get your
stuff,” meaning my comp card and headshots. I stayed calm, said I was
sorry she felt that way and would like to work it out if we could. But the
end of the conversation was inconclusive.

And afterwards, I kept running into people at auditions and jobs
who were sent by XYZ, but it was my other agents who sent me. Clearly,
I’d been dropped. And when I spoke with another agent in the office,
she confirmed it.

Here’s what I find fascinating: at, I knew there was
I was supposed to be doing, some purpose that would go unfulfilled as
long as I stayed there. And when I didn’t leave on my own, “fate”
stepped in and I got laid off.

Now it has happened again, and on the face of it things don’t look
good. My income is down this year. I need all the work I can get. But
ending the relationship with XYZ feels right. It’s consistent with how
I want to live and the people I want around me.

I should probably be nervous, because I don’t know what’s going to
happen or
where the money’s going to come from. But I’m calm. I figure that if I
keep doing what Anne Lamott calls “the next right thing,” I’ll be all right.

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