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Too Good To Be True

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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?”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“Then that’s your unique selling proposition.”

“Oh.”

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

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                                                     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.

People Helping People

Ten years ago this month, I went to the mountains of western North Carolina to report for CNN.com on the search for suspected bomber Eric Rudolph. After two and a half years futile years in the gloomy Nantahala National Forest, the mammoth federal task force had dwindled to a few FBI agents in a small office in a national guard armory.

While the Rudolph story was interesting— the search ended a few months later, and Rudolph wasn’t caught for another two and a half years —  it was the town of Andrews that captured my imagination.

Andrews was a struggling community of 700 families with a median income of about $20,000 a year. Half the storefronts were empty, and only a handful of businesses employed more than two or three people. There was competition 10 miles down the four-lane in Murphy, the bustling county seat, where a new Walmart had just opened, and you couldn’t help but think that Andrews was on life-support.

And yet there was something about the place that struck a chord in my heart. The town is tucked into a valley framed by massive, tree-covered ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains that humble human pretensions with their steadfast strength. The rolling farmland is picturesque and so peaceful that late one afternoon I parked next to a pasture and sat in stillness so immense I swear I could feel the earth breathe.

One evening after dinner I drove slowly past a skinny, bearded man peddling a bike lazily down a side street while cradling a baby in his left arm.

“He’s asleep,” I said.

He grinned, a gap showing where his front teeth should be, and said, “Works ever’ time.”

Cutting Horses

There was a coffee shop in the hotel where I stayed, and a handful of locals gathered there every morning for coffee and conversation. They invited me to join them, and I discovered that they were proud of their town and resentful that the international media had portrayed them as toothless rubes with tobacco juice on their chins.

One of the mainstays of the group was Scott Freel, a lanky, laconic redhead with a goatee whose hobby was riding and training cutting horses.  Freel ran the biggest business in town, a builders’ supply store, and was a member of the town’s “first family.”

A sign on a bridge west of town read, “Margaret Freel Bridge.” The Margaret in this case was Freel’s mother, but he was also married to a woman named Margaret. The latter was from Alabama, and their family room was festooned with Crimson Tide memorabilia.  

‘Everyone knows your business’

Freel and I were sitting in his office one afternoon discussing small town life, and he admitted it was a mixed blessing.

“The thing about a town like this,” he said in a long, slow drawl, “is that everyone here knows your business, or thinks they do. But if you have a problem, you wouldn’t believe how many friends you’ve got.”

That conversation came to mind this morning when I got an email from my friend Barbara. Barbara was responding to an email I forwarded to those who are praying for my daughter, Kiersten. Kiersten had cancer surgery recently and must undergo chemotherapy. She had commented in the email I had forwarded about the prospect of losing her hair and having to find a wig.

Barbara wrote to say that Raquel Welch has a nice line of wigs, and that occasionally she wears one herself.

Human Nature Finds a Way

A few hours later, my friend Fran, who recently had a double mastectomy herself, emailed that her plastic surgeon recommends the herb arnica montana for swelling.

These are the kind of things one woman would tell another if they ran into each other at the post office in Andrews, because people in Andrews always have time to stop and visit. But Barbara and Fran live in suburban Atlanta, Kiersten lives in suburban Boston, and in the city we’re all too busy to stop and visit.

Through the internet, however, we have created a network of people who pray for Kiersten and send her suggestions. That network stretches from Massachusetts to California, and from Michigan to Georgia.

It’s not the same as Andrews, of course, where the way of life — at least to an outsider — has a simplicity and continuity that city life cannot duplicate. But no matter where we are and no matter how difficult the circumstances, human nature prevails and people find a way to help people. 

The Mask

“Take off your mask. You say you’re not wearing one? But you are. The muscles of your face are so accustomed to displaying your familiar emotions they’ve gotten stuck. Raw new emotions are aching to show themselves, but can’t dislodge the incumbents.”

The quote is from Rob Brezsny’s “Pronoia Is the Antidote to Paranoia,” a book I’ve been reading for the past couple of weeks. It’s a big, loopy trade paperback with quirky graphics and lots of space for doodling and rumination. It’s a manifesto inviting readers to throw off the chains of what Brezsny calls “the culture of the living dead,” a/k/a the world as we know it.

There’s a library branch at the end of my street, so I don’t buy many books. I bought Brezsny’s because he’s a man after my own heart. Which is to say, he doesn’t buy into conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom pisses him off in a rowdy, good-natured way, and he’s made it his life’s work to undermine it and expose it for the fraud that it is.

Brezsny is also the author of “Free Will Astrology,” which is syndicated in publications around the country, and I’ll confess I don’t get much out of it. But what he’s trying to do with “Pronoia” is get people to turn off the auto-pilot and wake up to the truth. If you’re really paying attention, he says, you’ll see that, “All of creation is conspiring to shower us with blessings.”

Stranger in the Mirror

Take that paragraph about the mask. It sounds like a theoretical statement, an abstract way of characterizing human behavior. But it is literally and factually true.

Several years ago, I went to a Mexican restaurant in midtown Atlanta with a woman I didn’t know well who was — in my mind, at least — auditioning as a possible romantic partner.

After ordering drinks, I went to the men’s room, and as I entered I caught a glimpse of my face in a mirror that was hanging not over the sink, but on a column inside the door. It was an odd place for a mirror, and the face reflected back to me was even more surprising. In fact, it was  startling.

Rather than the mild, somewhat quizzical look I was accustomed to seeing in the mirror, I saw a set jaw, watchful eyes and a look that might best be called guarded. It was the face of someone who didn’t trust the world and who was poised to jump when the other shoe was in mid-air.

Wary and Distrustful

I had never seen that face before, and I was furious. Fifty plus years on the planet had not prepared me for a surprise of that magnitude. Who the hell was that jerk?

Obviously I hadn’t long to ponder it, and by the time I got back to the table the mask was back in place. For that’s what it was, muscle memory composed in the form of a mask that I wore in public. It got me through the day, but it wasn’t the real me, and neither was the one I was accustomed to seeing in the mirror at home.

I’d had been through some hard patches in life that made me wary and distrustful, and the mask reflected that. And it was several more years before I found a way to begin the process of removing it. It involved a searching self-examination, which wasn’t always pleasant. But I hated what I’d seen in that restaurant mirror, and self-loathing is no place to live.

A Magical World

Life is about choices. I can’t change the past, but I can make new choices and create a different present, and that’s Brezsney’s point. You can buy into the “life’s a bitch and then you die,” or you can opt for a quote that Brezsney lifts from Bertrand Russell: “The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

Ridding myself of the mask and letting go of resentment and the self-justifying rubbish I’ve been dragging around is opening me up to the truth about myself and the world around me. It also means challenging lies I’ve been telling myself for years and welcoming a life-affirming reality that doesn’t get much notice from mainstream media.

This re-tooling is a process. It takes time and patience. There are no overnight changes, no “road to Damascus” transformations. Even insights — and there are many — must be re-visited often untiul lthey become part of a new reality. Because when it comes to kicking the ass of that guy in the mask, the only person who can do it is me.

Gryffen and His Mom

I got an email last week from my younger daughter saying that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and is scheduled to have a double mastectomy in mid-June.

 “I’m not afraid as much for myself as my children,” she wrote. She has a five-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. But then she added, “OK, yes I am — hearing the description of some of the procedures was terrifying and not at all what I thought I knew.”

I don’t know much about the procedures, either, and what I do know horrifies me, too. A dear friend of mine had a double mastectomy just a few months ago, and she told me, “It’s hard. It’s so hard, and my heart breaks for anyone who has to go through it.”

I keep thinking that if men were the target of breast cancer, the treatment would be more advanced and more humane than it is. Mastectomies are barbaric, and I have no doubt that in the future people will look back at what we call modern medicine and be appalled in the same way contemporary doctors have to be appalled at what happened to George Washington. Washington contracted pneumonia, but it was the primitive treatment he got that killed him. Doctors took five pints of his blood, causing shock, dehydration and asphyxiation.

Finding Hope

The back story in my daughter’s case is that her mother — my ex-wife (with whom I am still friendly) — had a mastectomy about two years ago.  Her grandmother — my mother — had a partial mastectomy and died of breast cancer in 1986.

So if I sound pissed off, I am. But that does no one any good, and I did find something in her email that gives me hope. It has to do with prayer.

Two years ago, my daughter gave birth to a boy named Gryffen. Gryffen was born gasping for breath, and was initially treated for fluid in his lungs — which was the wrong diagnosis. X-rays showed that there was a hole in his diaphragm, and that his spleen, colon and small intestines had pushed up through the hole and collapsed his left lung.

Luckily, this was in Boston and across the street from the hospital where he was born was Boston Children’s Hospital. Boston Children’s had an expert in Gryffen’s condition (Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia) and four days later he was operated on.

In the days before the operation, I caught myself giving in to random fears about operating rooms, cold surgical instruments, indifferent medical personnel and a tiny infant newly arrived in a terrifying world. I vowed then and there that I would not allow that kind of thinking to enter my mind again. It was one thing to inflict it on myself, and quite another to direct it at a helpless newborn.

A Long Talk

I also sent out an email asking people to pray for Gryffen. The response was astonishing. Not only did they not consider it an imposition, many thanked actually thanked me.

Gryffen’s progress was slow and worrisome. He had breathing tubes and a feeding tube in his nose, three sensors taped to his torso, another taped to his foot and an intravenous Darvon drip stuck in the back of his miniature left hand. He had so many wires and tubes attached to him that for the first ten days of his life, no one could even hold him.

During one conversation, my tearful daughter admitted that she didn’t believe in God. I told her that I had had experiences that proved His existence to my satisfaction. And when I finally saw Gryffen myself — no one else was in the room — I held him in my arms, cupped his head in my hands, and had a long talk with him about how God loved him and it was going to be OK.

He understood none of the words, of course. But his enormous blue eyes — blessedly clear of the Darvon haze since the drip had been removed — were opened wide and locked on mine, and I know as surely as I’ve ever known anything that at a deep, energetic level he got it.

Amazing Success

In her email, my daughter wrote, “[Gryffen] is now doing fantastically. He is healthy and great and described by our doctors as ‘the same as any other two-year-old.’ Amazing and wonderful.” And in asking for prayer for herself, she acknowledged that she, too, has begun to believe.

“More than ever I believe these things help,” she wrote, “and Gryffen’s amazing success proves it.”

A few days later, I sent out another email to all those people who had prayed for Gryffen. I included her update, so they would know what their prayers had accomplished, and I asked them to pray again. But this time it was for Gryffen’s mom.

 



Why Is This Man Laughing?

My friend Walter had an interview with a recruiter the other day about a very good job with a big company that’s looking to expand overseas. Walter has been in senior management with a couple of U.S. corporations, and he’s got a nice house in the suburbs and a lot of toys to show for it.

But he lost his job a year ago, and when the headhunter asked Walter what he’d been doing lately, he said “Working at Starbucks.”

The recruiter blanched. When they tell you in the HR business that it’s easier to find a job if you already have one, they don’t mean making push-button lattes and wiping down sticky tables.

But that’s the economic reality for a lot of people in the wake of what TIME magazine called “the decade from hell.” There are a lot of people like Walter whose chances of landing a job commensurate with the one they had is compromised not only by economic conditions, but also by their age. Walter is 57, an age at which there seems to be hidden code written into the application process that causes your resume to wind up in the circular file.

In other words, this is the kind of situation that causes folks to wake up in the middle of the night trembling with fear, and I’d be surprised if Walter wasn’t one of them.

The party’s over

But the cool thing about Walter, is that after he told the recruiter he was working at Starbucks, he laughed. Not because it wasn’t true, but because…well, what the hell. When you’ve been through what Walter’s been through, why not? Consider:

• He had to borrow money from his father to pay the mortgage and other bills.

• The financial stress has contributed to tension and complications at home.

• He installed hardwood floors and re-tiled two bathrooms, not for the heck of it, but so his house would show better. The house is for sale, and the irony is that the improvements have deepened his attachment to the place.

• The pool table, outboard motor, cartop carrier and other toys are gone, sold on Craigslist. The new floor in the game room is especially noticable because the room is empty.

A new man

So the party at Walter’s place is over, and yet after having a beer with him the other night I thought about how much he has changed, and how much I admire him. Coming to terms with his reality — being more honest with himself and more open with others — have done wonders. That pale, haggard look of the past has been replaced by a ruddy glow.

“Working at Starbucks” is code to the professional class for the ultimate comedown; it’s the materialist version of hitting bottom. And yet when Walter talks about life as a barista, he grins like a kid.

He is the oldest employee by 25 years or more, but he likes his co-workers and they like him. They kid with him, confide in him and respect him for taking on the jobs, like cleaning and sweeping up, that they dislike.

And when a drop-dead gorgeous woman stepped to the counter the other day and Walter’s jaw fell open, they teased him about it unmercifully.

“Hey,” he told them, “I may be old, but I’m not dead!”

A rich vein

What I love about Walter’s story is that in humility he found grace. That in doing something menial and seemingly beneath him, he has opened himself up to authenticity and the dignity of truth.

There is a rich vein in spiritual traditions concerning humility and service. Jesus of Nazareth washed the feet of his disciples. Socrates, the wise man in Dan Millman’s “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” was a gas station attendant. Siddhartha in Herman Hesse’s novel, “Siddhartha,” forsakes his wealthy upbringing to become a wandering monk and eventually a ferryman.

Walter isn’t ready for canonization, but he is a wonderful example for anyone whose life has been turned upside down. We can feel sorry for ourselves and play the victim, or we can dust ourselves off and get on with it. From the look on Walter’s face, it might even be fun.

Tiger on Training Wheels

Sometime last year, when summer had laid siege to Georgia and golf became an indoor activity, I spent a lazy Saturday afternoon watching a PGA tournament. Tiger Woods was in the field and, as always happens when he is playing, the cameras doted on him almost to the exclusion of everyone else.

There is a reason for this. Woods’ astonishing success and multiracial background has brought millions of new fans to the sport. His presence on the tour has been the financial tide that lifts all boats.

But as he strode up the fairway, I found myself wondering why it was that I couldn’t bring myself to like him. I’m no Will Rogers (“I never yet met a man I didn’t like”), but I tend to like people until given a reason not to. So what was it about Tiger that put me off?

When he reached the green, the camera zoomed in for a long, lingering closeup of a face that showed no signs of warmth or kindness. Granted, he was playing a golf tournament, not handing out chocolate eggs to children, but what I saw was arrogance and a sense of entitlement that verged on contempt.

A boy in man’s clothing

It hit me then that this was a guy who had never had to overcome a setback of his own making. Yes, his father had died, but that’s a fact of life over which he had no control. In every regard, his life had followed a carefully plotted trajectory. He had never dealt with self-generated challenges and poor decisions, the missteps that present the opportunity for growth and maturity.

And without that kind of experience, without the humbling and the self-awareness they bring, there is no depth and texture and you are left with a boy in man’s clothing. Believe me, I know; I’ve been there.

How curious then that a few months later Tiger’s image exploded with reports about his extramarital sexual escapades. And how interesting that in his staged and bizarre 13-minute confession a few months ago, he admitted that he’d been acting as if he were above the rules.

By the time he arrived in Augusta for the Masters, Woods was the butt of innumerable jokes and the object of intense speculation. How, people wondered, would the long layoff affect his golf game? And, second, how would he respond to being publicly humiliated?

Arrested development

The answer to the first question was not too badly. He tied for fourth, an exceptional result for anyone else, but about what you would expect of Tiger Woods.

The answer to the second question was not as encouraging. Despite early attempts at acknowledging the galleries and even signing a few autographs, Tiger’s new attitude faded under pressure. It was epitomized on the third day of the tournament when, after sending a wild drive into the trees, he shouted, “Tiger Woods, you suck, God dammit!”

And in a rather surly exit interview Sunday evening, Woods seemed less interested in redemption than in how his game had let him down.

If the Masters represented a kind of armistice for Woods — the media was restrained, even deferential — the truce ended a day later when Jim Nantz, CBS’s mild-mannered lead announcer, criticized Woods for cursing on-camera. And Sports Illustrated published a column by Selena Roberts that labeled Woods a case of “arrested development.”

An imperfect arc

It took Woods nearly two weeks to post an apology on his website for cursing at the Masters, and as with his previous apologies it was hard to believe. If it takes a guy that long to say he’s sorry, maybe he’s not all that sorry. And if true, then perhaps this Tiger is not going to change his stripes.

But what makes this fascinating is that no one can be sure. The human growth curve seldom carves a perfect arc, and behavior with years of reinforcement behind it is not going to change in a few months. Or even a few years. My own experience after coming to my senses is that there will be relapses and further failures.

It takes effort and determination to overcome the habits of a lifetime. It took Tiger a long time to become what many believe is the greatest golfer ever. But as a human being, he’s still on training wheels. It’s going to be interesting to see if he has the determination become a good person, too.

Finally, I make these comments not as a putdown, but rather as observations from my own experience. Only in the past few years have I come to terms with my own immaturity, and  sometimes is seems like eliminating it altogther will never happen. The good news is that while perfection seems unattainable, progress is not and the payoff is life-changing.

 

No Time for Rocking Chairs

A conversation yesterday with my friend Maryanne reminded what a pleasure it is to talk with a friend, and how important it is to sane, healthy thinking.

I’ve known Maryanne for more than 20 years, but we seldom see each other. When I first moved to Atlanta we attended the same church and saw each other often. In time I drifted into a different orbit, but we are still fond of each other and I think of her as an older sister.

Some of this flashed through my mind when I saw that she had called. It also occurred to me that years ago Joel and Maryanne had a construction business, and Joel was shocked to discover that at one point it was worth about $2.5 million.

He tells the story on himself, so I’m not giving anything away to say that in pretty quick order he managed to squander that fortune out of feelings of unworthiness. The good news is that although they had some very hard times, times that tested their marriage severely, they toughed it out and their relationship is better than ever.

Time for Adventure

How? At 57, Joel realized he wanted to be a minister. I’ll never forget being in the men’s group where he announced his decision, and he was grinning like a happy kid. He still has that happy grin, and a few years later, Maryanne, too, became a minister.

Before they retired a couple of years ago, they had been ministers at a couple of churches in the Atlanta area. What’s more, they consistently showed up as the happiest couple I know, and now they’re having the kind of adventures I hope I might have at any age.

Their travels have taken them to China, Egypt, Israel and Australia, and they have just returned from a 12-week trip out west. Driving a pickup and pulling a camper trailer, they visited Memphis, Arkansas, Oklahoma City, Taos, California, Banff and the Dakotas.

They hiked, kayaked, bicycled and visited with friends and family along the way. And, most remarkable of all, they’re still talking to each other. In fact, in two weeks they’re off again, this time to Virginia.

Thumbing Their Noses

I take their story to be hugely affirming. As a multiple offender when it comes to failed relationships, I especially admire their determination to save their relationship. In fact, in recent years they became relationship counselors.

The other thing is that they are in their 70s. Maryanne has lost a tremendous amount of weight in the past few years, and the hiking, kayaking and biking are new activities for them. In effect, they are thumbing their noses at conventional wisdom about aging and the notion that folks their age should confine their exercise to the rocking chairs at Cracker Barrel. 

Their lives are a gift to those of us who get mired in habitual thinking. They remind me that life can be — indeed, should be — an adventure, and that it’s never too late to get started. And as an expert at isolating I particularly need to hear the corollary, which is that it’s a blessing to pick up the phone and connect with a friend.