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This is Marc Porter Zasada with The Urban Man for KCRW.
Here in the metropolis it's important to maintain a clear self-definition, no matter what. You may not have landed a role in years, but remember that you're still an actor. You may not have gotten a golden parachute, but don't forget you're still a high-flyer. Even if everything else goes to hell, you have to keep your abs in line and your cheekbones visible.
The other day I ran into my old friend Pete, whose definition has become, well, less than certain.
I had gone for an early jog on the beach, which even at 6:30, with the clouds still in place, was hardly empty: old women defining themselves as "active oldsters," producers staying in character with blinking bluetooths. And yes, of course, buff young men seeking full delineation in shiny black Body Gloves.
What with the downturn, I've noticed an uptick in the beach population. I mean if you're out of work, why not? And sure enough, out of the gloom appears a familiar figure. Okay, he's ill-defined in a silver jogging suit, but I'm pretty sure it's Pete.
"Hey Pete! Petey!"
He slows, and we do what all men do we they meet after a few years: each checking the current flatness of the other man's belly, the sturdiness of his chin. I recall when Pete was a far more delineated individual: a student of architecture with an arch smile and a rapid swagger. He held forth on things. He lifted his eyebrows with amusement. Now his face has become a little soft…yet, of course, he is still Pete.
"How's the family?" he asks, and at once I try to clarify myself: I list the irons in my fire, the pathways of my children. In business they call it the "elevator speech," the six or seven sentences that you've pre-prepared and can deliver in the space of an elevator ride. Mine says, "My life makes perfect sense."
Now it's Pete's turn, but he shocks me by having no elevator speech at the ready. He says, "You remember that crisis I went through, when I decided to go back to school and retrain myself for social work?"
"Sure," I say brightly. "You got out of the whole corporate thing."
"Well, somehow it never really gelled," he replies. "And now I've been unemployed for nearly two years."
"Ah," I say. But then I try to place this news into a coherent life plan: I say, "I never thought social work was the real you. I suppose now you'll go back into architecture."
Unfortunately, Pete doesn't seem to grasp the whole high-def concept. Instead of running with this very clear storyline, he says, "You know, when you're out of work, you start worrying about the most trivial things: about the weather and the local news. Last week I spent three days fixing my sink. I bought a whole book about home plumbing."
I wish I could report that at that moment I offered my friend some grander self re-definition, some greater meaning for personhood. Something like: "Pete, whatever happens, you are a man with a poetic soul and an enormous heart." But just at that moment the clouds parted and the sun emerged from behind his head, blinding me so that the edges of his figure seemed to waver like a poorly-tuned TV image. It made me uneasy, and all I said was, "Hey, I'm sure you'll figure it out."
We did speak a little more. And we did promise to meet for lunch one of these days. But I'm sorry to say that the Urban Man suddenly felt an irresistible desire to get off the beach and head in to the office. And yes, as I turned toward the parking lot, Pete just disappeared into the rapidly growing crowd along the shore.
Copyright © 2009 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved. Names and incidents have been altered to protect the author.
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