Monthly Archives: November 2005

Toast to a coach

On the day after Thanksgiving, the cat and I stepped out on the front porch to greet a cold Georgia morning. She was looking for wildlife – squirrels, birds, chipmunks, moles. I was marveling that yesterday it was 65 degrees, and this morning 32.

It was on a morning like this, but sunnier, that a football team gathered 45 years ago in a high school gym in Barrington, Rhode Island. It was Thanksgiving morning, and we were preparing to play our arch-rival, Bristol, in the traditional season-ending game.

I was a sophomore, a part-time player on offense, full-time on defense. But I had injured my back and was leaning against the beige tile wall in street clothes with three other injured players. The rest of the team sat on the floor in their gold, blue and white jerseys and white pants.

In their midst stood Frank Murgo, a compact man with walnut-colored skin, pale green eyes and a receding hairline. Coach Murgo was a physical education teacher at one of the town’s two junior highs during school hours. When I was in eighth grade, Coach Murgo came to class one day in kelly green pants with a gold stripe down the side.

“Hey, Coach,” I said, “those pants glow in the dark?”

Punishment for that little display of wit was to spend the rest of class running laps around the rock-strewn field between the school and the library that afternoon. It wasn’t until I got to high school and started playing for Coach Murgo that I truly learned to appreciate him.

Coach Murgo was a legend in Rhode Island, a man for whom every other season was time to be marked until football began again. When he was younger, the story went, Coach Murgo suffered a concussion playing semi-pro football. Undeterred, he suited up anyway and played under an assumed name.

Soft, suburban kids won state championships and had winning seasons consistently because this blue-collar son of Italian immigrants knew how to turn them into gritty, passionate football players who would rather die than disappoint him. I was one of them.

On that Thanksgiving morning as he spoke to the team you could feel the passion rise up from his shoetops and pour out over everyone in the gym. Whether you were a gangly, 15-year-old sophomore like me or a cocky, 17-year-old senior, you felt his fervor in every cell of your body. You knew there was nothing more important than the moments you were living and about to live, and you wanted nothing more.

Suddenly he turned and pointed at the four of us, the wounded players in street clothes. In a voice quivering with emotion, he reminded the team that those kids had worked as hard as they had but were unable to play in the biggest game of the year.

Players hunched their shoulders and squinted at the floor, hiding their faces. I turned away so no one would see my tears.

“Don’t let them down,” he said. “Don’t let yourself down.”

He concluded with something he said often, words I never forgot which have never grown old even after all these years: “Don’t leave any regrets on the football field.”

We won that day, and I know he was happy. But I think what mattered most to Coach Murgo was that you held nothing back…that you gave your best. He could live with losing if we’d done our best and lost. But it would grieve him deeply if we underachieved.

My family moved away that summer and I played for other coaches over the years, but no one who moved me the way Coach Murgo did. In the big picture, the football field is life itself, and I can’t say I’ve lived my life as wisely or as passionately as I would wish. I have regrets, but I suspect the true measure of happiness lies in how well we recover from them.

As I write this, I am listening, by coincidence, to “Autumn” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” A friend of mine, an opera conductor, says the stock criticism of Vivaldi is that he wrote the same symphony 500 times. Even I know that Vivaldi is a cliché – classical music for the unwashed – and yet I hear in those strings the same fire I heard in hair-raising solos by Santana, Hendrix and Young.

It’s the same passion I heard in that gymnasium 45 years ago, and have searched for ever since. I think I’ve got a bead on it now, and yesterday, when the turkey was on the table and the toasts were made, I lifted my glass to a man who gave an impressionable 15-year-old kid some words to live by.

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Confessions of a mystic

"There must be some kind of way out of here,
said the joker to the thief
there’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief…"

                    From "All Along the Watchtower"*

I picked up a copy of TIME magazine the other day in the library, intrigued by the cover story "The God Gene." It wasn’t until I started reading it that I realized the publication date was Oct. 25, 2004. No wonder it looked familiar. 

Still, even a year after the fact I was curious about the perception of God in science and the media. Despite the beguiling notion of a gene that impels a spiritual impulse, and some thoughtful speculation on both sides, the only conclusion was the one we’ve lived with for millennia. Namely, that there is no proof of God.

But the article included a 20-question quiz called "How Spiritual Are You?" It was created by Washington University psychiatrist Robert Cloninger, author of "Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being." The questions range from "I often do things to help protect animals and plants from extinction" to "I believe that miracles happen."

I took the test, and scored 17 – "highly spiritual, a real mystic."  By comparison, a friend of mine who happened into Starbucks where I was writing this, took the test and scored in the 1-5 category: "highly skeptical." If I had his job, I  would be, too: he’s a cop.

Considering how regularly I fall off the wagon of faith, it’s hard to think of myself as a mystic, a designation that summons thoughts of St. Francis of Assisi or Thich Nhat Hanh.

But the questions triggered some interesting memories. Number 14, for example: "I have had experiences that made my role in life so clear to me that I felt very happy and excited."

Ten years ago, standing idly in a bookstore, perfectly sober, neither thinking nor observing, I sensed suddenly an energy that I recognized as the combined essence of all the writers whose works were in that room. That energy, that essence, was as distinct and identifiable as the smell of freshly baked bread.

Even more surprising was the certainty that I was one of them: I was a writer, an author, a conceit I would never have permitted myself in my normal, self-doubting state. Then I was flooded with bitterness and disappointment: my book was not on the shelves, and I had the feeling that I was looking in through a window at a party to which I’d been invited, but had neglected to attend.

Within weeks of that experience, I completed a non-fiction manuscript I’d been working on and sent it to an agent. That it was not published is a blessing. No matter how interesting it might have been – and some of it was sensational – I deeply misunderstood one of the key figures. I’ve not given up on that manuscript, and I’ve begun another. But back to the quiz.

Question 16: "I have had moments of great joy in which I suddenly had a clear, deep feeling of oneness with all that exists."

That’s happened often, particularly in nature. I spent an hour one afternoon in a national forest meditating on a huge rock on a sloping hillside. After several moments of settling myself, the sounds of the birds and insects, the drone of a small plane, faded. I lost all sense of time and place. It wasn’t until I came back to myself 45 minutes later that I realized I had been in a place where boundaries did not exist. I had merged with all things and all people, with what Eckhart Tolle calls "Being."

A woman asked the other day if I might be too self-absorbed in this quest of mine, and the answer I would give from my personal history is, "Absolutely." But I got more clarity a few days later when I was asked my passion was.

My passion is change – seeing people heal, change, get better. That comes from my own experience. Before I did the work, I was selfish, angry, defensive, judgmental and deeply wounded. Meditation, prayer and intensive personal work  have left me open, vulnerable and loving in ways that amaze me.

I write about it because I want others to know there is that the purpose-driven life that Rick Warren writes about is not just a fireside story. There is "some kind of way out of here." We’re not trapped. There is relief, and given where I’ve come from, it’s no exaggeration to call it a miracle.

* Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan; I prefer Jimi Hendrix’s version.

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Can you see me now?

FRIDAY, NOV. 11 – From where I’m standing on the 10th tee, three rolling fairways stretch away between tall oaks and pines, green and inviting. It is mid-morning and the air is crisp and warming pleasantly, and the sky is cloudless.

Below the teebox are 11 golf carts bristling with equipment. On the tee itself, twenty feet away, PGA Tour pros Chris DiMarco and David Toms are chatting with an L.A. actor named Matt Greisser. Arrayed around them are large reflective screens, cameras, a producer, director, and dozens of crew members wearing toolbelts and headsets and armed with pliers, tape, rope, boards, hammers and knives to ensure that commonplace reality is improved upon in every possible way.

In other words, we are on location. We are shooting a FootJoy commercial at the Druid Hills Country Club, a leafy bastion of privilege just west of downtown Atlanta.

I am standing outside a yellow nylon rope strung between thin green stakes. Around me are a dozen other people, men and women, young and middle-aged, all of us doing the same thing: nothing.

We are extras, hired to form what looks like a gallery at a Tour event. But this is a break and thus we wait while producer, director, first assistant director, Greisser and golfers confer.

This is not unusual. In approximately three hours, no more than 12 or 15 minutes of tape will be shot. The intervals are filled with conferences, moving props, correcting the lighting, waiting for a school bus to pass on the road below, and so on.

The waiting began at 6 a.m. when we were shuttled to the club from the Fernbank Museum parking lot across the street and sequestered in a room in a far corner of the clubhouse.

The bacon and eggs we smelled as we entered the club were for the principal actors and crew. Extras got coffee, ice water and cold Krispy Kremes. We did crossword puzzles, read, chatted or, in the case of one woman, studied scripts. It was dark when we arrived, then twilight, and it wasn’t until sunlight poured through the windows that we were led outside.

DiMarco and Toms arrived a few minutes later. DiMarco wore an orange shirt and brown slacks. Toms chose a light-blue shirt and black slacks. Both wore new black FootJoy shoes with a seam down the middle and white FootJoy golf gloves.

They were taking direction from the director, a thin, sandy-haired man with a hawk nose. But it was the first assistant director, plump, Slavic features, Florida tan and a Chicago accent, who called the signals.

"OK," he’d say when everyone was in position, "we’re rolling." "Rolling!" comes a shout from a golf cart where several people with computers and monitors watch the video feed.

At "Background!" extras walked toward assigned spots in the gallery and at "Action!" Greisser, in hip-hop shorts, checkered sport shirt, a blue tie that didn’t quite reach his sternum and blue sportcoat, began his role as SignBoy.

"Your 8:40 pairing…from Orlando, Florida … Chris DiMarco…."

The gallery applauds politely. DiMarco steps up to a ball on a tee.

Signboy: "Chris is wearing the new FootJoy G2 shoe!"

DiMarco frowns, glances at Greiser, then addresses the ball again.

Signboy: "Chris is also wearing the new FootJoy StaySoft glove!" DiMarco frowns, mutters, turns back to the ball.

Signboy, giggling: "His mother calls him ‘Spanky!’"

DiMarco grimaces, hits the ball, topping it brutally.

Toms: "How to spank it, ‘Spanky.’"

Variations are repeated dozens of times over the next couple of hours, including repeated takes where SignBoy knocks over a table holding a glass trophy and bowls of flowers. After each take, crew members stoically set the table back up, gather the vase and flowers and re-arrange them on the table. 

Other than applauding and looking attentive, the extras have nothing to do. And aside from a hello from Toms, sunscreen from a makeup girl and water from another crew member, we are ignored.

It’s not glamorous and in many ways it’s not even interesting, and yet every year there are plenty of extras.

As a fledgling actor last year, I was an extra for two days, and happily added FootJoy to my resume. I also noticed that while Greiser clowns around, even between takes, he is very professional on-camera and never muffs a line.

Another appeal is that it’s a union commercial. Where a non-union job may pay $125 or less, a Screen Actors Guild extra gets around $500. If you’ve got nothing better to do, $500 – less 20 percent to your agent – will buy a lot of ice cream.

There is also the "bump," an almost mythical experience where an extra is easily recognizable in the final product. Last year, an actor said he was recognized in a FootJoy commercial and got a bump from $500 to $8,000.

Finally, there’s always the chance you’ll be discovered, like the geek in the Verizon commercials, and your fortune will be assured. 

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Completing the circuit

FRIDAY, NOV. 4 — Last week I wrote that I’d signed up with to find out if a woman I’d seen on the site was one I encountered in a grocery store last year, and to prove that I wasn’t too good for online matchmaking.

Well, she isn’t and I’m not, and at some point – probably sooner than later – I’m going to drop the subscription and take my chances with serendipity. But an odd thing has happened over the past 12 days. I’m becoming an older  version of Ferris Bueller, a comforting dispenser of encouragement, wisdom and understanding to unrequited women.

Not all of them. My profile had 692 hits as of this morning, and 50 or 60 winks or emails, so there’s not enough time to answer them all. But there have been instances where a face, a phrase, a question, even a case of mistaken geography has moved me to respond not by clicking on the "No Thanks" button, but on "Send an email."

Wednesday night, I got a wink from a woman in Arlington, Texas, who wrote that she was just getting a divorce and "extremely nervous" about dating. Her profile said she was looking for a guy within 30 miles of Arlington.

I pointed out that Atlanta was just slightly beyond her territorial waters, and added: "It’s none of my business, but if you’re just separated and not yet divorced, you’re fresh paint. Wait until you’re not ‘extremely nervous,’ or even nervous. Your fears are thoughts; they exist only to the extent that you allow them to. You’ll be fine."

My answer must have reassured her. She hadn’t noticed that I was in Atlanta, she replied, but distance was no problem. Her ex is a pilot and she had plenty of passes.

The profile of a woman in Douglasville, Ga., was accompanied by a washed-out photo in a chaotic yard. There is no attraction, but I see that she’s 5-foot-3, so I tell her I’m looking for someone taller and nearer.

Her reaction: "…why do I need to be tall? I look tallish because I am thinish. And…it is not that far to my house, especially when there is no traffic, like at night and on weekends. Anyway, some things are worth traveling for."

I could drop it here, but I’m invested in a happy ending. I write: "You DON’T need to be taller. You’re just right the way you are, thinnish or not. I need someone taller because I’m 6-foot-3…."

An Atlanta woman sends a profile, and then pictures, and wants feedback if I find something "wrong." Again I feel nothing, but her message touches me.  There’s nothing "wrong," I say: "By that reasoning, there are several billion women in this world who are ‘wrong’ because they don’t have that spark or whatever it is that I find attractive. That’s a terrible business, that kind of thinking…."

She persists: "Please tell me why you don’t think we match, even though we’ve never even spoken to each other… I know I am a great person and have a lot to offer the right guy…..but even though I’ve been told I am attractive, intelligent, warm, funny and exude sex, somehow something is not working. I’d like to know what."

My response: "My reaction was and is purely instinctive…and my feeling was we’re not a match, but no judgments about who or what you are…. It’s about attraction …chemistry…and if anyone had the answer to that, they’d bottle it and retire to Majorca.

"But I will say this: if you feel something is wrong, then it probably is. And the cool thing is there are ways to deal with it without spending a fortune and the rest of your life in therapy….

"…You’re perfect as you are. But like so many of us, you don’t know it and you don’t live it. This is a great time to be alive, though, because there are so many new ways to change, and so much support for it…."

I referred her to a therapist, and shut down the computer feeling I’d done something useful at the end of a day that hadn’t gone well.

I don’t know how long this urge will continue. This morning I hit "No Thanks" to a woman who was nearly a good fit, and didn’t bother to throw her a bouquet. It’s possible that feeling, that need to complete the circuit, to honor these women for their  courage in reaching out and risking rejection is waning. But probably not. As I wrote to one of them, "I’ve become a lover of people. We’re all connected, and it’s a good thing to acknowledge." 

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