Acting My Age

Helvin

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

samplecover12

 

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

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.

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.