Monthly Archives: July 2007

The Power of Passion

Johnny Walker is a ruddy, white-haired former military officer with brilliant blue eyes and a square jaw. He’d make a great poster if the Army were recruiting senior citizens, and he’s probably pretty good at selling real estate in Birmingham, Alabama, where he lives. 

We met on the porch of a Cracker Barrel in Pell City, 30 minutes east of Birmingham, as part of a large cast shooting a commercial. Being on the set of a commercial – especially a big-budget affair such as this – is like being in an airport when all the flights have been postponed.

Actors, made up and costumed, lounge about reading, doing crossword puzzles, knitting, dozing and, more than anything, comparing notes about the business. They talk about agents, jobs they’ve done, jobs they didn’t get, jobs they wished they’d gotten, etc.

At lunch the first day day, an actor from Birmingham named Danny Vinson said he learned to cry on cue by visualizing a sad scene from his own own life. "Works every time," he said. "I can’t stop."

The most common topic, especially when actors meet for the first time, is "What else do you do?" Very few make a living at films and commercials, and in a business with so much rejection and uncertainty, curiosity is almost pathological. Scarcity is powerful motivation.

Since this website is dedicated to passion and purpose, it was particularly interesting that on my Alabama sojourn I gravitated to people who were very much about passion. Johnny Walker, the soldier-turned-realtor, was one of them. He showed up across the table from me at lunch.

"I got screwed when I bought my first house," he said. "A colonel said he’d help me, and I trusted him, and I almost lost everything. What I love more than anything is selling a young couple their first house, and helping them avoid what happened to me. It’s nice to sell a million-dollar property, but I love selling young people their first house more than anything."

Later that day, Mimi Gould and I sat in rocking chairs on the front porch. The grande dame of actors in Atlanta, Mimi is another bright-eyed and vigorous soul who is nudging 80 and ought to be home coddling her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I asked her if she’d ever done theater. "I love it," she said. "I absolutely love it. But it took too much time away from my family." So she committed to commercials and film, and her passion is undiminished.  When shooting finished the first day, she and her husband drove back to Atlanta so she could rise at 4 and catch a 6 a.m. flight to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she would spend a week filming a movie about the beginning of jazz.

When I asked if perhaps she wasn’t pushing herself a bit hard, she shook her head and said, "I just want to work."

During the dining scene the second day, I sat across from a heavy-set guy with a round, red face and thinning hair. Alan said he had two degrees in theater and had spent 10 years in Los Angeles trying to become the next Brian Denehy. Now he teaches drama in a Birmingham high school, is co-founder of a local theater company and would soon  be interviewing for a university teaching position.

The noise between takes was such that I only heard half of what Alan was saying, but his expressions, his gestures and his fervor were those of someone born to entertain. Indeed, during breaks he stood at the back of the room reading "Two Gentlemen of Verona."

The last conversation I had was not so much about passion as it was the absence of it. Robert, as I will call him, is a big, prosperous-looking man in his early 50s who admitted that the excitement that drew him to his business was gone. He was tortured by the prospect of grinding out another 10 years to retirement, and fearful that if he did quit early he’d just take another job for the money rather than the joy.

"Truth is," he said, "I don’t know what I want to do. My wife says I need to develop some other interests, and I think she’s right."

Yet even here, passion was close at hand. Robert’s younger son had forsaken the family religion (Lutheran) for Catholicism, and had become so passionate about it that he was studying to be a priest.

"We’ve talked to him about it," Robert said, "but he seems very clear and at peace about it."

If I could characterize those I’ve met who have found their passion, it would be just that: they are at peace. With themselves, with what they do, with their lives. There are still challenges, of course, but it’s affirming to think that peacefulness, the antidote to the anxiety and restlessness of modern life, lies in following not the hyperactive chatter of the mind, but in the soothing ministrations of the heart.

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False-Bottom Suitcase

A woman I knew flew into New York from Amsterdam in the 1970s with a suitcase packed with enough hashish to lift off the 82nd Airborne. She was saved from discovery by her cribbage board. The customs agent in New York, overlooked the false bottom in the suitcase while describing cribbage with his dear old mum.

The image of a false-bottom suitcase came to mind the other day as I pondered my new reality. In repayment for a favor, I have allowed a friend to move in with me for a few months while he searches for a new house.

The roommate is a friend from my men’s group and thus, by definition, committed to personal growth and communication. We also share interests in sports and fitness, and similar political views.

But the house is small, and I’ve been living alone for nearly 10 years. No matter how sensitive or considerate he may be, the dynamic cannot help but be changed.

At the moment, the challenge is compressing his essentials from a three-bedroom house into a bedroom and bathroom of exceedingly modest size. It hasn’t been easy.

He has wedged an oak desk, a desk chair and a chest into the room along with the trundle bed furnished by the management. There are also numerous boxes, a file cabinet, a TV, an artificial plant, a desk chair and two end tables. And, out in the hall, an oak credenza.

Also accompanying him have been not one but two pickup trucks, one of them a 30-year-old Datsun pickup-cum-camper that he’s trying to sell; some silk plants he is loathe to part with; a kayak and windsurfing board (currently wrapped in a tarp next to the shed in back); and two bicycles sharing the shed with my bicycle and lawnmower.

I explained my concerns to him before he moved in:

• I am a light sleeper, and he habitually rises at 4:30 or 5 and goes off to bike or swim or run – he’s entering a triathlon in the fall – before going to work.

• He watches a lot of TV. I watch too much myself, but limit it to sports. I don’t like television – an odd thing to say for someone who appears in commercials whenever possible. But I consider TV the worst kind of pollution. It is banal and stupefying.

• His anger, as expressed in our meetings. I had a black belt in anger before I figured out how to deal properly with it. Untreated anger is the nuclear waste of human emotions, and not something I want to wade through at home.

• I have a peaceful lifestyle. If the Dalai Lama moved in, I’d worry that his giggle might keep me up.

In short, I’ve got control issues. But I went ahead anyway, assuming his belongings would be easily absorbed, we would be respectful of each other’s space and property, and life would go on.

But I was unprepared for the overflow. Things tumbled into the hall, clustered around the back door, and showed up uninvited in corners. And there were a couple of instances where I felt my wishes had been disregarded.

Which, of course, triggered my problem with boundaries: I grew up without boundaries, thinking I had to please or at least placate everyone else. As a kid, I was intimidated and fearful, and any kind of violation re-ignites primal feelings of powerlessness and despair.

So having someone at close quarters is an opportunity to fix that, to learn at last to draw the line. But after mishandling a scenario the other day, I discovered that my "peacefulness," like that suitcase my friend took through customs, has a false bottom. It depends on my ability to control my environment, the "A man’s home is his castle" kind of thinking. 

But true peacefulness is not a place, it’s a state of mind. It’s something either I carry around with me or I don’t. It depends neither on living alone nor on a bristling aura and a scowl, but on the extent to which I can inhabit the spiritual equivalent of true north no matter where I am or what I’m doing.

A few days ago, I ran into a woman I’d seen at Al-Anon meetings. I mentioned that I felt intimidated about speaking up at co-ed meetings — an issue related to boundaries, I think. What I didn’t tell her was that a situation had come up with my roommate that brought up the old feelings of intimidation and despair, and I didn’t want to go home and confront either my roommate or the issue.

She said, "You know what intimidation is, don’t you?"



"Ah, and I’ve got to walk through the fear…"

She nodded. So I went home, although not before I tried to find someone to meet me for dinner so I could dodge the situation. That failing, I said a prayer asking for strength and resolve, and went home. 

Turns out, the assumption I’d made was wrong. The situation had already been remedied, and the angst fell away like anchor chains. I felt light and free, at home again in my own home, and at home in my own skin.

For now, that is. But I know there will be other challenges and that the desired outcome has nothing to do with people and circumstances, and everything to do with how connected I feel with that which loving and endless.

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