Getting fired: the next right thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A meeting of men

A friend of mine suggested the other day that I write about the men’s
group I’m in. “Women would like to know something like that is going
on,” she said. Another woman friend put it more bluntly: “It gives
women hope.”

The group has been meeting every Thursday evening at a church in
suburban Atlanta for the past eight years. Our focus is personal and
spiritual growth, but we are not a Bible study group, nor are we
governed by church doctrine. (It helps that the church where we meet is
a Unity church, an institution that goes light on dogma and ritual.)
Also, we do not beat on drums – although we haves a majestic council
drum acquired by one of our members in New Mexico — we do not paint
our bodies, dance around fires, invoke Robert Bly or restrict ourselves
to “men’s issues.”

Rather, we gather to sort out the complexities of everyday life and
regain our focus as husbands and lovers, fathers and sons, brothers,
colleagues, sinners…men. Our role models, of course, were our fathers,
most of whom grew up in the John Wayne generation. Men who, for the
most part, didn’t talk about their feelings, were not openly
affectionate and grew up in a world governed by a paradigm that was
hierarchical, male-dominated, competitive, defensive and grounded in
fear.

What we’re doing is not criticism of our fathers – they did the best
they could – so much as it is learning from their mistakes and building
on the good things they gave us.

We have had close to 75 men attend at one time or another over the
years. Some came once and never returned. Some stayed a month, six
months, a year, and moved on. Some came when things were good and left
when they went bad. Others came when things were bad and left when it
was good again – the former usually coinciding with losing a woman and
the latter when finding another.

A few times the group was so large – 22 on one occasion – that we
divided it in two. We have a core of about a dozen men, and average
seven to nine per meeting, a size that encourages openness and
intimacy. Our youngest member is 38; the oldest is 76 (and recently
re-married), and we get occasional cameo vists from a vigorous chap of
89.

We have two rules. One: what is said there stays there. This is
essential when asking men to forego a lifetime of programming, drop
their armor and speak from the heart. Even at that, it’s not easy. Most
of us spend a lot of meetings snorkeling – paddling around on the
surface, getting our faces wet but unwilling to go deep. But the months
and years of shared history – not just at meetings, but at coffee or
dinner, at golf or a party, at weddings and funerals – have created a
feeling that the Hawaiians call ohana…family.

In that setting there is understanding, compassion, acceptance, a sense
of belonging and security that is hard to find anywhere else.

The other rule is that we speak from experience. No opinions, no
advice, no stories. Everyone has opinions and advice, but what carries
real weight is the experience of someone who’s been there. On one
occasion, one of the guys had tears in his eyes as he described his
difficulties with relationships. As most women know, when there’s a
problem, men think they’re supposed to fix it. But often all a woman
wants is to be heard.

Nobody tried to fix the problem that night. Instead, each man – there
were nine or ten – spoke about his own experience with relationships,
and the effect was remarkable.
It was as if each contributed a piece to a puzzle, and when the meeting
was over the puzzle was complete – a mosaic that left our friend
glowing with astonishment.

Rubbing his forehead, he said, “That was amazing!”

One of the keys to the group’s longevity has been keeping it from being
hijacked by those (there have been a few) who tried to reshape the
group to fit their own agenda. Great things happen sometimes, but we
are not a therapy group.
Ultimately, what we’re doing is redefining, in a spiritual context,
what it means to be a man. This being the 21st century, that’s not such
a bad thing. It’s about time for a paradigm based on cooperation,
equality, truth, understanding and love.

If you’d like to respond to this blog, please click
below where it says “Post a Comment.” To contact me directly, send an
email to  jc@johnchristensenonline.com.

Hunter Thompson reconsidered

I read recently a piece in the online magazine Godspy by David Griffith about the life and suicide (in February) of writer Hunter S. Thompson.

I met Thompson twice, corresponded with him briefly and interviewed his mother, Virginia, while working on a piece about him for a magazine in Louisville, his hometown.  (Oddly enough, I lived at the time about three blocks from where Thompson grew up.)

I never did get to interview Thompson — he blew off an interview
we’d set up at a NORML convention in Washington — but I was an admirer
of his for years. Eventually, however, I lost interest in him and I
think now it had to do with what I called in my post “his spiritual
squalor.”

As so often happens when I speak first and think later, those words
later seemed rash and intemperate, and more than a little
sanctimonious.  And, as so often happens, I now find myself trying
to explain.

I’ll begin with the night I attended a jazz festival in Cincinnati
in the early ’70s. I was talking to a guy outside Riverfront Stadium
before the gates opened, and we were discussing some of the performers
— including Sly and the Family Stone, the Staples Singers and Ray
Charles. When I mentioned B.B. King, the guy snorted: “Shoot, he ain’t
nuthin’ but a one-string guitar player.”

Hunter Thompson, too, was a one-string guitar player. And, like B.B.
King, he was a damn good one-string guitar player. He wrote
brilliantly, vividly, with devastating insight and great humor. Most
important, he wrote from a belief that this country could and should do
better. He was a prophet in hairshirt, at his best when flaunting
authority.

The problem was that ultimately his “life’s a bitch and then you die”
mentality — the one string — grew tiresome.  The anger that inflamed some of his best writing
was ultimately self-defeating, because it set him up – unwittingly, to
be sure – as a victim. And a victim must always find others to blame.

When I started cleaning up my own life, I discovered that the source of
the ugliness in my life was old, untreated wounds. My failure
to own my emotional garbage was irresponsible, and the key
to what had become a very unhappy life.

I’d been dragging around the highly inflammable
emotional debris from my past. Then someone would pass by and throw down a metaphorical match – a chance remark, an innocent observation, cutting me off in traffic – and
the debris would catch fire and I would explode with anger.

On the face of it, the person who threw the match was the problem.
But had there been no debris, there would have been no fire and no
eruption.

Being angry is a choice, and the payoff is self-righteousness. But
if you’ve ever been around anyone with an anger problem, you know how
tiresome and immature it can be. The answer to Thompson’s issue,
bizarre as it may seem, lies in Michael Jackson’s song, “Man in the
Mirror”:  “If you want to make the world a better
place/Take a look at yourself and make a…change.”

Griffith wondered if Thompson could have been converted to
Christianity, perhaps even to Catholicism. Wishful thinking, of course.
And while it’s dangerous to oversimplify the complexities of human
behavior when it leads to suicide, had he tackled his anger head-on, he might have come to terms with spirituality in some fashion. It’s a natural
progression: from anger to understanding to acceptance and finally to
forgiveness – of others and, most important, of self.

It would have been fascinating to see what a transformed Thompson –
who, according to Griffith, had read and was impressed by the apostle
John’s cataclysmic Book of Revelations – might then have done with that
prodigious talent.
The irony is that a central figure in the Nixon White House that
Thompson despised so much – Chuck Colson – transformed himself (if not his
politics) and became a Christian author and  a champion for prison
reform and prison ministries.

 

If you’d like to respond to this entry, click
below on ‘Post a Comment.’ To contact me directly, send an email to
jc@johnchristensenonline.com.

 

Independence Day

It’s no accident that this site was launched on Independence Day. I’ve put a lot of effort over the past 20 years  into freeing myself of old habits and beliefs, a process I think of as unlearning.

I’d had a messy time of it to that point — teen marriage, drugs, alcohol, divorces, fear, rage, sadness — and my intention was to make myself bulletproof, impervious to the pain and disappointment of life.  Eventually I realized I had a spiritual itch that was just beyond the reach of conventional religion.

Over the next few years, I experienced a kind of spiritual puberty, meeting psychics and trance mediums, Sufis and Sikhs, New Age teachers and old-fashioned charlatans, numerologists, astrologers and Tarot readers. I crossed paths with fire walkers, meditators, yogis,  levitators, mystics, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi  (guru to the Beatles) and Shirley MacLaine herself.

Meanwhile, I was earning a living as a mainstream journalist (Bio). At various times, I was a reporter, sportswriter, feature writer, rock critic and environment reporter. I interviewed scores of celebrities, from a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore named Yo-Yo Ma to an 88-year-old freelance wise man and author named Paul Reps.

 At times I felt like I was living a double life. On the one hand, I was engaged in an extended excursion through odd and sometimes bizarre subcultures, and that required an open mind indeed. On the other, I was working in a business where skepticism is an entry-level requirement and cynicism is the post-graduate degree.

It was in Atlanta, where I was a senior writer at CNN.com, that I realized my time was up. I felt like something inside me was going to explode, and I knew it had  to do with being authentic. After all those years of telling other people’s stories, it was time to tell my own.

 I wanted to write about things like passion and purpose, about reinventing myself and redefining aging, and I wanted the freedom to offer a more affirming take on life.

That’s what this site is about. Some of those stories are already on the site under Commentary, and there are more to come.  Others will appear in this space as blogs.  I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

“If you’d like to respond to this entry, click below on ‘Post  a  Comment.’ To contact me directly, send an email to jc@johnchristensenonline.com.”