It’s January 2020, and the holidays are finally over. I have always hated January because it is the “waiting month” for a freelancer. I always spend January waiting for people with “normal” lives to get back to work.

I know, you “normal people” deserve a break, it just does not appeal to me.

I entered 2020 the same way many of you did. I felt like this year was going to be the best year of my life. 2020 just had a good ring to it…..until Kobe Bryant’s helicopter hit a mountain, killing everyone on board.

2020 was going to be my year of prosperous change. I had struggled in 2019 surviving the ever-changing digital photography market. I knew what I wanted, but the road to get there was confusing and full of twists.

In 2019, I had been pushed in a lot of uncomfortable directions. I had failed at shooting video (because I had no interest in it mechanically). I had failed at being in front of the camera (64 takes dubbing a simple how-to video). I become bored with my subjects and began saying no to shoots I felt were below me. 

I began to process my creative needs and finances. It became clear to me that I needed to be in New York City if I was ever going to level up. New York City has always been THE spot for my game, and I love working there. 

In late February, I made the internal commitment to spend half my time in New York City. My good friends Kevin and Rika have a military-style cot I could use in their computer room to sleep on and that was all I required. 

By early March, I was a regular on the L train, the guy at the bagel store knew me by my first name, and I was full of creative energy. My goal was to allow a miracle to happen, the kind of miracle that only happens when you commit to the discomfort of your passions and move forward regardless. I was well on my way.

One sunny March afternoon, I was on the Q train with a beautiful model as it slowly emerged from a tunnel winding its way to Coney Island. As it was mid-week and the train was going the wrong way, we had the car to ourselves. As my model draped herself around poles and seats, I dropped to the floor of the car to create perspectives you would not normally have on an active subway train. Getting a little dirty to get just the right shot is not new to me, and I thought nothing of it. 

I happily rolled around on the dirty, germy floor of the Q with my camera in hand, making jokes and enjoying the company of my lovely model. An empty Coney Island was my background, the locals were feeling friendly, and we even ran into my old friend Dick Zigun, the owner of the Coney Island Freak Show. 

A few days later, I was back in Los Angeles, feeling really good as my schedule was starting to open up. 2020 was promising to be an incredible year. I had shoots on my calendar that included shooting in the Louvre Museum in Paris, a Dublin gig was looking good, Vancouver, New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. were all confirmed locations. I was even considering subletting my apartment and staying on the road for long periods of time. But first, I needed to fly to Chicago to shoot with my good friend Sara Elkins.

I had heard a little about COVID-19 by this time, but I was not especially worried about a pandemic. I knew I needed to be vigilant, but I was not going to wear a mask on a plane, or anywhere else. It was not until I landed in Chicago and entered a completely vacant airport that I knew I was “not in Kansas anymore”.

The vibrant city of Chicago was completely empty. The trains were empty.  The streets were empty. If people were out, they were scared, and on their way home.

Most people had canceled for Sarah’s conference as news began to break and panic began to spread. I began to get emails from friends around the world urging me to get home. That afternoon, clients began canceling shoots.

I took to the airwaves creating videos about how clean and safe an RDP photoshoot is, hoping that the cancelations would slow down. But by the time I got back to O’Hare airport, just days later, my last shoot had been canceled. I was officially out of work. I have been working since I was fifteen years old, I’ve always had work, and I’ve always loved to work. I was devastated. 

In the course of a couple of days, I fell from the heights of thinking this would be my best year yet for business and personal growth, to the low cold valley of a heartbreakingly dead business, and an empty feeling soul. I broke into tears sitting alone in Concourse B on a Wednesday night at O’Hare Airport, I was scared shitless.

LAX was eerily vacant when we landed. There was not one person in sight in the terminal as I made my way to the exit. When I got home, I began making calls to my landlord, my credit card company, and my bank. I had enough money to last a little while, but not for the months the news predicted we would be on lockdown. I think very few freelancers keep large amounts of cash on hand, even though the Good Faith Freelancers Handbook says you should. Even if I had, none of us could have known how long and drawn out this would really be. 

I realized that day that not having a plan was not good enough.


I am a fighter. I am a killer of all things that get in my way, especially professionally.

I have escaped arrest three times that I can remember, all in the name of getting the perfect shot. I have been busted for trespassing at least as many times. I have been detained by the Mexican Police twice (they are the worst), and I had the guts to ask Steve Forbes to do silly selfie photos with me before a shoot to break the ice. 

I understand risk versus reward.

I did not understand COVID-19 and knew I did not possess the skills to move forward alone. So I did one of the hardest things a person can do:


Assembling a list of long time friends and clients, I sent out an S.O.S. email. My tribe answered the call with heartwarming speed in the spirit of true brotherly love. They helped me form a plan that allowed me to still maintain confidence in myself and my ability to survive, with the comforting knowledge that I had a safe place to fall if all else failed. My friends helped me to see clearly through my fear to list my options, organize my thoughts and ideas, and prioritize what was most important. They helped me figure out which bills to pay and which bills I could negotiate. When the plan was set, I did the next hardest thing in the world.


I do not want to drone on about all the things I have lost to COVID-19. I prefer to tell you about all the things I have gained during this time.

I have learned I am a much stronger and smarter person than I ever believed I was. The unconscious survival skills I acquired as a kid are still with me, but I am no longer embarrassed by these skills. I embrace the thought of eating Top Ramen for a week if I need to. 

I have been reminded that I have an absolute army of the most incredible friends standing with me and together we can and will defeat any and all threats. I am no longer scared. I REFUSE to be scared.


I have never been happier as a recovering person. The time I have spent learning to truly take things one day at a time and not let my mind get ahead of a situation has brought me deep and lasting peace. I have gained perspective on who I am as a person and the things I want as a professional photographer

I have been afforded the blessing to be able to be charitable to others in a time of crisis. I have every intention of continuing that long past the death of COVID-19. I have a deep connection to service and a willingness to give back.

I have learned to gratefully and gracefully receive and let others give to me. This may sound easy, but it was the hardest thing for me during this time. 

I have gained a better and less emotional perspective on money.

Many friends have said that COVID-19 saved their businesses. I don’t know if it saved my business or not, but I can honestly say it has given me many gifts and opened up a new playing field for the future. Oddly, my path is much clearer today than it was at the beginning of the year.

I know exactly what needs to be done and I have already started down that path. It is very simple. Get up, open the window shades, have a cup of coffee, greet the sunshine, and get back to doing what I love. 

This week, I am headed to New Orleans to seize yet another opportunity, shooting in an abandoned French Quarter. 

I cashed in my airline miles, got a hotel, and am providing for my clients at my own expense.

Why you may ask?

Because nobody else is going to save me. I am going to save me. It is time to put up or shut up.

We have to do what we love regardless of money right now. We have to help those who have helped us. WE HAVE TO GET THIS GOING AGAIN. We must invest in ourselves and our clients safely and confidently. 

We have to be bigger, stronger, and louder than ever before as creatives.

Do what you LOVE NOW and I promise you will not only survive, you will prosper. Invest in you.

I have to pack. I have a flight to catch and a rockstar to photograph. 

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The house that sat at 3376 Snapfinger Rd. was not close to anything a normal person would deem “important” in this world. To the left of our dirt driveway was a dead man’s curve, the site where many drivers who had skidded off the curve into the dirt gully received Mom’s ice packs for their foreheads. To the right, about a quarter-mile down Highway 155, was Snapfinger Creek, above its bridge was the Stop and Shop, a T-junction that served as the entrance to the real world and the escape route from Lithonia, Georgia. 

There was no public transportation where I grew up except for my bike, an awesome ride complete with a purple banana seat. Even with my kid-powered wheels I was not allowed outside our gate because I would surely be run down by a speeding car. I did not care. I was into Evel Knievel and busy creating dirt driveway jumps late into the hot summer nights.

Our house was actually built by our neighbor Mr. Sykes. It was a small split level house with a blue roof (to keep the evil spirits away) and a barn. 

Below the house was a cement basement that served as many things, but mostly as ground zero for a lifelong relationship with my creative spirit. Using childhood memory measurements, I can honestly say that basement was huge. It was the location of all the Downs family’s fun stuff. 

Notes were always left by Santa Claus to have a look downstairs. The day Santa brought the ping pong table was life-changing for me. My brother Scott and I played deep into the night perfecting the “slam” and our “Chinese upside down grips” for ultimate ball spin. The basement was a full story away from my parents’ bedroom so it was easy to stay up late and have friends over.

The basement also housed my Dad’s full-service darkroom. The darkroom was constructed with 2×4’s and black plastic, it had three rooms: a loading room, film/print wash, and a massive print developing area. The darkroom was, without a doubt, my Dad’s refuge from the pressures of the world. Dad often enjoyed listening to baseball games on the transistor radio, space away from the kids, and making a few bucks printing photos of Jimmy Carter’s social events at the Governor’s Mansion.

Many nights of my life were spent in the darkroom helping my Dad print. Dad would bring a drink, I would bring my imagination and stand in complete awe as an image would arrive on the sunken piece of paper soaked in Dektol. Dad would remind me to always watch the clock to stay consistent with my printing. Many years later, when I was living in New York City, I turned down an offer from Annie Leibowitz’s studio to become a printer. I knew I wanted to shoot and being a good printer was part of being a good shooter. My print training still applies today.

The basement also offered entrance to my love of music and I was led there by the Jackson 5. 

Dad had come across a huge piece of carpet someplace and decided the basement could use an upgrade. Please understand, the basement was four walls of cement that leaked every rainstorm and was no place for carpet, but that never deterred the Downs Family from an “upgrade”. 

This carpeted corner became the location of the local Cub Scouts meetings with lights, a couch, and a record player. 

I was too young to be a Scout, but because I was surgically attached to my big brother Scott, I was allowed to hang at the meeting. There was little argument from my Mom (the Den Mother), it was kind of a two-for-one set up for keeping us both out of the creek. 

After Scouts I’d put on the Jackson 5 and whomever was still standing around after the meeting was required to form a line and do their best Jackson 5 moves.

I loved how Micheal used to spin, so I was usually Michael. The others were my back up and we performed hits like “ABC” and “Rockin Robin” to an imaginary crowd of thousands every Wednesday afternoon after school.

As I grew older, the space managed to maintain its creative value in my life. My parents went their separate ways and I started playing drums. 

My CB700’ drum kit, complete with “Roto Toms” for the ultimate RUSH drum solos, greeted me each day after school in the basement. Looking back, I have to think that this was my Mom’s ultimate sacrifice for dealing with a kid that was a member of a freshly divorced family. 

I came home and literally beat the shit out of those drums until I heard my Mom screaming at the top of her lungs that she had had just about enough drumming for one day.

In high school, I made friends and together we forged the ultimate rock band in the back corner of the basement. We named the band SHADOWFAX. Each band member told every girl we knew at South West Dekalb High School that we were in a band, and we eventually ended up playing the ultimate venue in Lithonia: 

The Rainbow Roller Rink. 

The gig at Rainbow was my crowning achievement as a rock drummer. The band broke up shortly after the gig. Danny took the PA home, Mike left with his girlfriend.

I went home and my Mom announced shortly after that she had heard enough of Shadowbox and in a rage, she had heard enough of me too.

I was seventeen when I was released into the world, and I never looked back. My Mom would only hear rumors about me from friends for years after. Not communicating with my Mom was my ultimate “fuck you” for denying her love to me. 

I could not have been more wrong.

I am older now. I healed. THEN through God’s grace, we healed together, and the result was the ultimate gift of my life. My Mom became my biggest fan after that moment and from what I understand now,  SHE never stopped being that fan. 

I miss my Mom. I miss my Mom especially these days when things are so shaky and out of control. My Mom understood shaky, she had Multiple Sclerosis, this pandemic would have been nothing for her. 

I miss the basement and all the creative fun we had there. I am forever grateful for this basement and the chance to actively expand my mind and my imagination. I was taught that boredom is never an option in my life. We knew as kids there was a door and what existed beyond that door needed to be explored. If we could not go outside we went inside our minds, which also needed to be explored.

Boredom Is Never An Option. 

That’s something we all need to remember right now. So explore, and if you can’t go outside, go inside, there is so much to see.

Lastly, never underestimate the healing powers of a Jackson 5 spin. I find myself finishing this, playing the Jackson 5, and dancing around the room. 

Music heals, let’s heal together.

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Giving away your product for free is not something you want to advertise when you are trying to run a business, but I have to admit, I have been wanting to try this for a long time. 

What if money was not a part of the equation? 

What if you just needed some help to keep going? 

What if I could help you?

What if I did not need, or want, to be paid?

What would happen?

This year I have refused payment for photoshoots and it changed my life.

I guess it all started when I received $200 in the mail from my mentor Jerry Burns when the pandemic first hit. Jerry had not called or asked if he could help, money just showed up with a note that read “take care of yourself”.

In the early years, Jerry spent a lot of time teaching me photography and how to run a studio. I am not going to say it was some kind of perfect relationship, it was not; real relationships rarely are. Jerry and I had our challenges, but the things I truly learned from Jerry were unspoken and arrived long after I left Studio Burns.


The day I met Jerry, I was working in a camera shop. Jerry came into the shop looking for light boxes, I showed him a few, but not knowing how to fold the boxes back into their sleeves, I began to fumble around in front of Jerry, eventually setting the fabric boxes on a table so someone else would re-fold them.

Jerry immediately snatched the boxes from the table and folded them perfectly back into their sleeves. “Great! Now I don’t have to do it”, I thought. To my surprise, Jerry then took the them back out, opened them up, handed them to me, and said, “There ya go, now you know how to do it.” It took me the rest of the time Jerry was in the store to fold those light boxes back up, but I did it. When I finally finished, Jerry returned and whispered, 

“Want a job in a real studio?”

Jerry is a red-headed firecracker of a man. When things got challenging at the studio there was only one way through, full-force, straight ahead, and no looking back. We worked hard every day. For my efforts, I was paid a weekly wage of $200. My salary was just enough to pay for a small room next to a very active laundry room in an apartment complex. I lived with the sounds of swishing, churning washers, thumping, clanging dryers, and machine doors slamming for three years.

You might be thinking “how horrible!” It certainly was not ideal, especially when those late-night washers showed up, but I had a bed, a small bathroom, and a microwave oven. I did not need much, I never have. What I had instead of a great apartment, which was much more valuable to me, was keys to the studio!

The Atlanta studio was a magical old warehouse with high ceilings and beautiful wooden floors located near Little Five Points, my punk rock hang out. On shoot days, I got free lunch, and I drove a red Karman Ghia convertible. My best line on any given date night was, “I forgot my coat at the studio, would you mind if we stopped by to pick it up?” Needless to say, the studio served as a great make-out spot and my date never had to see the laundry room that I actually lived in.

Life was good, it was really good.

I had been at Studio Burns for three years, but it was time for me to move on and let the next guy take a swing. I decided that living in Paris, France would be a much better choice for me. One week later, I left for Paris to begin the next phase.

Soon after I left the studio, I noticed I possessed the ability to make correct decisions about anything photographic with lightning-fast speed. I already had the answers to every problem when it came to shooting on location. To my surprise, I also noticed I had a fire inside of me to push through problems, the same fire that Jerry had shown me for years. When faced with a problem on set, there was only one direction, full speed ahead, straight into the storm.

Jerry’s voice and influence continues to whisper in my brain, even though today I work as a full-fledged professional photographer. I think deep down this is where I got the idea to work for free this year. I have fallen in love with the idea of passing on gifts that you can’t put a price on, like Jerry’s confidence and fire.

This year I have shot menus for every restaurant in my neighborhood that needed help getting online. I have photographed actors, musicians, and bands. I have photographed hippies and coloring books they had for sale. I have photographed plants, flowers, and even hair gel, simply because it was beautiful and I wanted to.

Many have offered money or tips for my work. When they would not take no for an answer, I promptly donated the money or bought groceries for an artist or two that I knew were struggling. 

Like Jerry, I didn’t need to ask, I just did. I love that gift so much.

This year has given me great joy in providing true service directly from my heart to my friends and my community. I think it is the most I have ever been paid in one year. My personal bank account is running over with love and confidence.

Many have said that all this will come back to me and that karma is somehow in play. I could not disagree more. One of the best things in life I have learned is to release expectations and to give freely. The act of giving is the gift, not to others, but to yourself.

The future looms ahead of me and my business and it continues to change color every time I try to assign it an emotion. Some days it is dark, other days it’s bright as the sun. The truth is, I have no idea what is going to happen. But I can honestly say I am not scared. I guess I should be, but why? 

There is a lot more showing up to be done. There is a lot of fire in the furnace to be stoked and molded into passion, art, and beauty. I am doing the best work of my life as a human and as a creative right now.

I am only positive of two things. Now is all we really have and the universe is perfect. 


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I have officially had too much time to think.

Thinking can be an awesome thing, you can be creative, you can solve really tough problems, you can even complete your G.E.D. in your spare time, but I am here to tell you that I am THOUGHT OUT; that I am desperately in need of some new experiences.

One of the best things about my job is that I am allowed to travel around the world for work. My active and present mind is only needed part-time, whereas my artistic mind is always FULL-ON, so the rest is an adventure. I am really missing this part of my life at the moment. Without the constant distractions, or artistic nuances, of friends, secret hiding places, and an uncanny ability to get into awesome or hilarious trouble, the beach, and my little apartment are feeling a lot smaller these days.

The times past of rallying the troops, creating plans of action, swearing to God above that this pandemic will never defeat me or my creative spirit, all have moved into the cruelest phase, the long haul.

I have never been so rich, yet so poor in all my life. If anything, this time in my life has confirmed to me that there are two bank accounts, the one with cash in it and the one with experiences.

I cannot put a price on being crowd-surfed in a school bus complete with a ska band parked in the middle of the Red Light District in Hamburg, Germany with my friend Kam in the middle of the night around this time just last year.

I cannot put a price on laying down under a tree in the King’s Orchard in Prague one perfect afternoon and enjoying a cool breeze, just last year.

I cannot put a price on sipping a coffee in Berlin on a brisk grey day in an alley covered in art by my favorite graffiti artists, again, just last year.

It has all come to a halt. For all of us.

You never hear about people lying on their deathbeds screaming that they should have made more money. Their death cries are always focused on not enough time spent with loved ones, or about things they should have done. I have to believe that, in the end, it is money that is the devil needing to be bargained with in order to strike a balance in life, but it is not what is truly important.

Life is important. Experiences are the veins of gold hidden deep in the mountains of our life that we need to mine.

I have never been in this position before, so backwardly wealthy. I have plenty of cash, but no way to experience the world without getting sick. It is very confusing.

If pride were to sneak its way into this newsletter today, I guess I can say that I have been a “good adult”. I am not known for being a “good adult”, but have been one lately. I have learned that I am much smarter than I ever thought I was. I can say that because recent experiences have tested me, and I have surprised myself with my reactions to these experiences. My close friends have been supportive, and likewise proud of my growth. They knew I made a plan and have stuck to it. They have celebrated small victories with me as I have progressed, as true friends always do. It’s in the small victories that large ones are achieved.

I listened to the evening applause outside my window at seven o’clock each night then shut my windows. I have been in it for the long haul from the day we shut this machine down and knew fully what it was going to take. The applause has stopped and has been replaced by evening sirens from the firehouse down the street, something I fully expected.

I am not particularly proud of knowing how to survive life’s tough times. Life survival skills have to be earned, and I would trade those times in a minute if I had had a choice. Surviving is about understanding the battle. The enemy does not care how upset you are, or how tired you are, or how scared you may be. The enemy does not care about you or anything you love. All that matters in a battle is that you are stronger than the thing you are fighting. You must have the ability to show up each day and scream


You have to beat the bad times back with a bigger stick. That stick is your lifeline. Your life is important, it matters. It has to move forward.

We are on a long haul train ride, and the station is nowhere in sight. It’s a good time to dream and to look out the window. It is also a good time to start making plans to live again when this is done.

It is a good time to swear, cuss, spit, scream, and declare that when your time comes to leave this world, THAT DAY will be a good day because you are too tired to stick around.

You will live your life fully, you will survive a pandemic, you will go on to tell TALL TALES to everyone and anyone who will ask.

These are cruel times, take full advantage of them. What is your tall tale? Create it now.
Tell it later.

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I’m watching the sunset from my home in Los Angeles. I have experienced a lot of sunsets, each one has its own unique personality. Sunset at the beach feels like a reflection of my life. Sunset in the mountains confirms that I am a part of all things and I can have anything I choose. Sunset on the Strip in Los Angeles is pure adrenaline.

“I could really use a show right now.” 

This thought runs through my head almost every time the sun sets on the City Of Angels. I want to take you with me tonight, I want to expose you to my world.

It’s 7:00 PM


When I arrive at any show, anywhere around the world, it is generally the same. All shows start with a band, a crowd, lights, cheers, and the rhythmic flow of energy between them all. But, casual concert attendee, I am not like you.  

Upon arrival, I stop at will-call. I collect my working credentials. I don’t bother to put them on. I don’t want to stand out as a backstage visitor. A visitor is not who you want to be in the world of rock and roll. You are either in or you are out. No pass will ever define that.  

Circling around to the back of the venue I see tractor-trailer trucks, tour buses, and the crew hard at work. My job is to stay the hell out of their way. 

I move through the backstage area without being stopped or questioned, despite the fact that I do not wear my pass. As I weave between amps, drums, microphones, guitars, and lighting equipment, I am reminded that this is one of the greatest feelings I experience in life, the feeling that I BELONG backstage. I have been invited here to ensure that the show will be remembered forever, photographically. I am trusted. 

Each show is its own defining moment for every performer. It is not my job to take their attention or focus away from that. Artists always find me backstage in their own way. 

I make my way not to the band’s dressing rooms, but to the coffee pot. The kitchen, just like at home, is always the gathering place. The kitchen offers a reason to escape a conversation, to break away, to grab a snack or a drink. Most artists sit down for a bit to say hello, but most just keep moving. It’s not personal, the show is on every rockstars’ mind backstage, not the photographer. 

My interest backstage is always the tall tales the roadies tell, like tours with The Who or Led Zeppelin. I love hearing about the travel, the pranks, or how they leveled a town in just one night.

Backstage is the only place the general public can’t get close to, so it becomes a well-constructed fantasy for most show attendees. The truth is, not much is happening backstage. To the band, it’s just stop number 23 of 40 on a tour.

What you don’t know sitting in your expensive seats, is that the band came for YOU, not for the cool backstage hang. YOU are the most important thing on their minds at that moment. 

Bands want you to have it all when they are on stage. They want the show to be worth the price of admission, they want to kill the set! It is important and personal to bands. I have never met a band that tried to “phone in” a show on purpose. 


I squeeze through the sold-out crowd on the right side of the stage to an area called “the pit”.  Every step is being tracked by security guards. I present my photo pass for entrance into the pit with a smile and a salute.

The pit is a six-foot-wide area between the stage and the front row. It is stuffed with media who have been told they have two, maybe three songs, to get their shots and get the hell out. The pit is filled with 50-100 photographers sometimes. The pre-show mood is usually chatty with idiots comparing lenses and cameras attempting to size up one another. I hate them all, except for Alex Solca, another shooter who makes a living as a shooter.

I like to talk to the crowd behind me that is squished up against the fence like sardines. I understand how hard it is to get a front-row seat, then spend every day waiting for that moment when you are right in front of your favorite band, listening to your favorite songs. 

I usually enter the pit and begin by joking with the crowd. I stand directly in front of a fan and stretch my arms out as wide as I can while faking a yawn, then turn my head around and ask if my constant yawning during the show is going to be a problem. We all laugh.

Soon the questions start to fly. 

“How did you get that pass?” 

“How can I get one?”

I do my best to answer the questions using the skills Michael Stipe taught me at the beginning of this journey. I try to make the fan feel like the coolest kid on the block while reminding myself how lucky I am to be here in this moment.

I check the clock to the side of the stage, it reads -3:00, three minutes ‘til showtime. 

I see Alex in the pit. We catch up for a bit and formulate a strategy for getting the shots we need before the amateurs get in our way.

I feel the stage start to cool down.

Every light in the building goes black, pre-show triumphant march music begins to play through the stacks. On the side of the stage, flashlights are darting around behind amps as shadowy figures appear in front of me.

Suddenly, the lights flip on, the band greets the audience “HELLO (city name)!!!”, guitars rip, drums roll, all hell breaks loose. It’s like an atomic bomb was dropped on stage. The crowd behind me lunges forward, screaming at the top of their lungs. It feels like being at the base of a fifty-foot wave, you feel the energy, all of your senses become overwhelmed, you just have to hold on.

The other photographers all push closer to the center of the stage, elbows in faces, heads knocking into lenses. 

I pull back and move away. I watch what everyone else is doing. I watch the shots the amateurs get in their 7-10 minute window of time. I find the scramble ridiculous.

There’s a game I play, the time I get in the pit is a burning match. How much time can I let pass before I get my shot? How can I be more creative than the herd? How can I make sure my shots are unique?

I am at the far left wing of the stage when I am noticed by the band. I’ll say that again, “I am noticed.” 

Lead guitar player Nita Strauss finds her way to me, drops her guitar down between her legs, and rips into a solo right in front of my lens. The others scramble to my position, but I am already gone, and so is Nita. The solo is over, I got what I needed.  

I move to the center of the stage and find Alex. We work together to create space between us and the other media. We are two songs in with three minutes left. Shutters are blazing as we break away to collect images for our editors, instrument companies, and, of course, ourselves.

As I make my way out of the pit, I notice I have two minutes to spare. I want more, something unique. I find my way to an area just behind the stacks, where I find a perfect line of sight to the drummer. I am so far left that his drums no longer block the view. We lock eyes and he cuts loose.

Photographers on their way out of the pit notice my position and quickly scramble over in front of me. My disgust for these leech types runs so deep that I purposely knock their cameras with my shoulder on my way backstage. Inside I am screaming, “THINK FOR YOURSELF, YOU ASSHOLES!!!!!”

Some photographers argue with security, others quickly begin to check their images, some desperately scramble to get one last shot, but the moment is over. The match has burned. You either you got the shot, or you got burned. I don’t even look at my images.


The band knows that they either killed it or they ate shit. When a band kills, the energy is off the hook backstage. In my eyes, it’s the electric energy built from a lifetime of struggling to get their music to you. When the show goes well, a burst of musical lightning strikes and starts an energetic fire in everyone, the band, the crowd, and, me. 

When a band has a bad show, for any reason, it is followed by flying furniture, slamming doors, screaming, and a bottle of Jack Daniels.

After the show is always a better hang. The energy has been released, it is time to catch up and be social. I try not to stay too long. I am rarely interested in what is next for a band after a show and I think the band appreciates it. As a family member, I know my place.

My new friends, the roadies, are now busy “rolling up the circus tent”. I stay out of the way as I try to find my way back to the car. For the crew, it is time for another show, in another town, a thousand miles away. The faster they get there, the more sleep they will get. The night will be endless yet again.

In the parking lot, I pull my keys from my pocket only to find my “ALL ACCESS PASS”, never used.  A smile finds its way to my face. 

Climbing into the car, I put it in drive, and turn left onto Sunset Blvd. Soon I will be at the Rainbow Room for an after-show burger and a hang with Lemme.


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“Yo, Kam, how is your pandemic going?” I jokingly ask. I know better than to bring negativity into any conversation with my friend Kam.

 “This is fucking great!” Kam says. “I am having the best pandemic.”

“What are you up to today?” I ask.

“I am packing the van for a camping trip. Yep, headed up to the redwoods, it’s going to be amazing.” 


I don’t think I have ever had this much time to myself. Time is a curse and a blessing all rolled up in one. On any normal day around my home office, I would be doing any number of things, worrying, setting plans, making schedules, chatting on the phone, planning trips and solving problems. 

For the last three weeks, it has been nothing but silence and the heartbreak of the cancelations of all of the incredible work projects I was stoked to shoot this spring.

Paris is on my schedule today. I was scheduled to be back in Europe this week with shoot locations that included The Louvre Museum. Instead, here I sit, staring out my window.

This pandemic is forcing us all into silence and a place of reflection. Honestly, I have been struggling with how quiet my life has become. I actually enjoy the noise that soundtracks my life. I have always associated that noise with being an artist, a creative, and someone who is constantly moving forward. Sitting at home has not been easy.

My one pandemic goal has been to not make any decisions created out of fear. I do not want to react to what is happening to me, I do not want to set a ship to sail just because I have been frightened into doing so.

I let it get to me last week.

A few days ago, I had a panic attack, at least, I think it was a panic attack? If my head exploding, a trip to my bathtub for an hour, turning off all the lights, closing the curtains, and curling up into a ball to watch movies for the rest of the day, is a panic attack, then I had a panic attack.

I’ve forcibly lost of control over my business life. The pandemic has put RDP on full shut down. I have applied for every loan and every social program offered in the United States and have not received one confirmation email from any government agency. I understand that the system is overwhelmed, but the lack of communication has made it impossible for me to make an informed decision about what I should do. 

I drove myself crazy.

It has been weeks of waiting and grieving what feels like the end of my career, I accepted that I could not go through this pandemic alone, I had blinded myself emotionally, and I needed help.

I created an email and sent it to my best friends, and the best minds I know. I explained that I was unable to make a decision about how to move forward with my life and I was struggling. I needed help, and asking for help has always been incredibly difficult for me. 

The responses from my friends have been incredible and humbling. 

The thought that ruminates for me in this silence is from my friend Judy. Judy said, “What would you do if money was no part of the equation?” Once that is clear to you, the next question is, “How can I make that happen in the present circumstances?”

I told Judy that I had no answer for her, but, thankfully, I now have a lot of time to think about it. 

What a gift it is to be silent, and think only about your life and where you want it to go. Silence has brought me the chance to mentally reinvent myself through inner vision and meditation.

The good news for me has been I don’t see my post-pandemic business life as being that different. I see that I was in the middle of reinventing myself when the pandemic struck. Meditating on my present life revealed I was only a few turns away from achieving my most perfect situation. 

Unfortunately, I had no real plan for those last few turns of my career and I really need one. Quiet time is giving me a chance to review and have a vision of what needs to be done. Silence is providing time to create a road map for the future. 

I am no longer on an inner tube floating in the energy river, letting it take me wherever it wants to. I see things I have avoided for reasons that can only be described as deep inner shame and I am done with it. I see what needs to be dealt with now that I am quiet.

I think there will be a lot of catching up to be done when this is all over. I am actually looking forward to avoiding myself in a lot of ways. I know that I have been changed forever during this pandemic and will hopefully look back on this time as a time of great self-learning, friendship, and the acceptance of charity.  


I am sitting here looking out the window and thinking about Kam. I am thinking about the wind, the sunshine and the fresh air consuming Kam’s van as it slowly makes its way up the Great Pacific Coast Highway through the tall trees. I can see Kam driving, then looking over at me with a smile, and saying:

“I am having a great pandemic man!”

I turn and look out the window at the vast Pacific Ocean.

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“Damn Rob, this is about as calm as I have ever seen you.” This comes from my neighbor during another 12-foot conversation in my hallway.

“What Gives?”

I take my neighbor’s high praise of my character as a kind of backward compliment. By which, I mean, he does not know my long history of survival nor how I have done my very best to forget about the dark days for years. Survival is actually a skill set I have had in my toolbox since I was seventeen years old.

I spend my time writing this newsletter/blog in order to remind myself that our life experience is not just made up of negative experiences. It is easy to romanticize those days of survival. It’s a little harder to see the romance as an adult in the middle of a pandemic, but I will give it a try.


My first real experience with survival came too early. We return in this memory to 3376 Snapfinger Road, where the poisonous cocktail of Multiple Sclerosis, depression, and a teenage son proved to be too much for my mom.  My dad and brother had already left the house. Now it was my turn, and in a sneaky and dramatic fashion, I left in the middle of the night after another horrible argument.

I went to live with my dad and his new wife for a few weeks, but dad soon got the memo from his beloved that Robert was not part of the package she had signed up for. If he wanted to come home that day, he had better not have Robert in tow.

Dad rented me a room in a house in Clarkson, GA for one month. The house was not far from the tracks, and not too far from the church, so it worked. I will never forget my dad reaching into his pocket, handing me a few bills, then turning to walk up the driveway. He got in his car and drove away. It was a real moment.

While this may sound horrible (and there is no doubt about it, it was), in a lot of ways, it was also amazing. I was a young, good-looking kid out on his own. I was in possession of a 1967 yellow VW Bug and the world was my oyster.

Dad had moved me in with Bill Downs. Bill and I were not of any formal relation (I don’t think), but we went to the same church and we had always joked about being family. Bill was very much a renaissance man. He had his eyes on being a professional MLB pitcher when he was not busy painting houses. Bill’s brother Burtis was just graduating law school at UGA and had these nutty friends who formed a band called R.E.M.  We would drive to Athens to see them play and get into all kinds of trouble. It was an incredible time in my life.R.E.M. became Burtis’ first and only client. 

So, I am on my own, I have a car, I have friends in Athens, GA (which is the hottest music scene in the country), and I have a backstage pass to all of it. I could not imagine me being able to take part in all of this if I had been living at home with a midnight curfew.

To make a buck, my brother got me a job at The Southern Railroad. It was not what was considered a REAL railroad job, so no perks. I worked in the yard on the ramp as an Intermodal Inspector checking in tractor-trailers for the rail’s piggyback service. It was the weirdest job ever. I made friends with truck drivers and got what I consider to be a unique education on how to deal with life’s problems from a truck driver’s perspective. 

I learned the mystical powers of Coca-Cola. If you want to remove rust from anything, pour a Coke on it and let it sit overnight. If you have a hangover, mix a Coke with a B.C. Powder for instant relief! Do the same if you ever find yourself falling asleep behind the wheel of a semi-truck. 

The biggest perk I had at the rail yard was knowing where they parked the Stroh’s Brewery trucks. Stroh’s would not accept bent cans, so I had a standing order with all of their drivers not to bother cleaning out the containers when they returned them to the rail yard. I would take care of it. There were nights that I filled my VW Bug to the roof with bent cans filled with perfectly good beer. I was young, I was on my own, and I had all the beer I could drink, not to mention I was invited to the gig in Athens. 

Romantic, right? 

The flip side of all this fun was that I was a teen on my own, living with a guy I didn’t know, in a place I had never been, with an absentee family. It was so bad that at one point someone sent a news crew over to the house to interview me about my situation. I don’t really remember much about it, but I do remember thinking “shit must be bad.”  Funny, when things are really bad, you don’t really know you are a part of it, you are just existing, you are surviving. 

All my friends had gone to college or joined the Army. I was truly alone. I guess that is where I began to survive. I do not really associate a pleasant feeling with survival. Surviving is hard work, but I am glad to have that tool in my toolbox and want to share some tips with you.


  5. GIVE UP.
  8. (my biggest problem).

I hope my message finds you healthy, happy, and in a good spirits. I have a lot of experience with difficult, emotionally trying, and mentally taxing stuff.
Please reach out to me if you need any help.
I will always do what I can.



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Out early for my morning beach walk a few days ago, I thought I would swing by the donut shop to see if they might have some coffee. They did not, so the second option was to cross the street to the 7-11.

I approached the 7-11, but a huge sign was  taped to the door that read, “No Coffee”. I decided to get a few lottery tickets instead and, oddly enough, I ran into the donut shop owner grabbing a few lotto tickets for himself. I am not the only one who is looking for an escape hatch these days.

I don’t play the lottery regularly. I don’t have a set of numbers that I just know I am going to hit one day. You won’t find me wearing a shirt around the neighborhood that reads “If You Don’t Play You Don’t Win”, but like my donut making friend I am sometimes attracted to the fantasy of just having a huge amount of cash.

For me, a romantic creative, this is where I find massive value in buying a lottery ticket. I get days and days of fantasies for just one dollar, what a deal!

I am smart enough to know the odds of actually winning the lottery are slim, but that is not the point. I buy a ticket and fold it perfectly into my wallet, making sure not to crease the barcode. I would not want an unreadable ticket at my life-changing moment midnight on Tuesday. (How embarrassing to lose millions on a technicality! )

My lotto buzz begins shortly afterward. 

Okay, let’s see, it is looking like I am going to win about twenty-four million dollars on Tuesday, I will need to be prepared. What is the first thing I need to do? How do I get out of the store alive? Do I know anyone that is rich? I wonder if Bill Gates would take my call if I baited him into thinking I wanted to give it all away? I need some rich people’s tricks. 

I like to think the day would go like this. After winning, I keep my enthusiasm to a minimum then quietly walk home. As I am about to call the lotto office, it hits me. Will I need a private plane to cash the ticket in person? Should I fly commercial? What if I drop the ticket in the men’s room at the airport? Can I check the oversized celebratory check on the plane or do I have to carry it on? Will people see my huge check as I am walking through the airport and try to steal it from me? There are so many things to consider.

Anyway, later that day, after securing my many millions into my Passbook Savings account at the bank and receiving a wink from the hot bank teller girl who normally shuns my hilarious advances, I step into my new life as a rich dude.

This is where my fantasy typically takes a weird turn, I really don’t want anything for myself. 

I have had a small bit of money in my life that was handed to me. I found it to be such a stressful pain in the ass, I had to move it to an internet savings account that took me three days to access. I am uncomfortable having the ability to buy whatever I want anytime I want it. My entire relationship with money has been built around the premise that if you want something, you work for it, you dream about it, then eventually get it.

When I was a kid my list of chores on any given Saturday ran the length of our refrigerator. My chore list was so monumental that if I had known there were child labor laws, I would have had my parents arrested, happily.

This was how I learned that there is no better feeling than wanting that new record at the mall, working your ass off for it, and finally getting it. This feeling is only second to playing that record at full volume (because you earned the right) and driving your patents crazy for the torture they put me through in the name of a good work ethic.

Since I now have twenty-four million dollars and I don’t really want anything, what should I do? In my mind there is always only one answer, I will give it away. Thus begins a new, and much more exciting, part of my fantasy. 

“You are receiving this money from the Margaret Dozier Fund For The Arts.” 

All the letters would start like that and be personally handed off to an administrator of an after school program, a charity for the arts, or a summer camp scholarship fund.

My Mom was an artist, who in my eyes, truly suffered for art. Mom had MS, but she never let it get in the way of her making art or treating me to a cabinet full of colored papers, glue, and OMG, the glitter!  I received glitter in every letter from Mom, even long into adulthood. 

Still burdened with millions in my account, I begin to think about all my friends who have helped me along the way, and their kids. What would be the best way to ensure the money lasts long enough to ease whatever financial sufferings they might have for the rest of their life?

“You are receiving a check from the Margaret Dozier Art Investment Fund. The interest on money that has been placed in the MDAIF is being distributed to you annually to ease whatever financial burdens you may experience in your lifetime.” 

Friends around the globe would soon read these unexpected letters, I imagine with shock and glee. I feel like this approach would work best for everyone I know. It would be a gift that would last, and is impossible to blow in one trip to Las Vegas. (I know my friends really well.)

I have a few million left for myself, so what now? I might upgrade a few things, maybe hit the road for a year, get a check-up? 

I have very few things I need to accomplish because I am currently doing most of them. In this lies the beauty of Robert Downs winning the lottery, it is the knowledge that I already won long before I ever bought a ticket. I am overwhelmingly blessed in this life every day.

I stick the ticket into the machine at the 7-11 on Wednesday morning. “Sorry You Are Not A Winner” it reads.


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I am back home at “my” beach, it’s early Sunday morning, and my body is still on east coast time. I just returned from New York City where I packed ten days worth of work into seven. I am exhausted, but it’s not terrible. The funny thing is exhaustion tears down all the walls that normally block your creative mind and heart.

This morning I was thinking about the rules of our lives.

I grew up in the south, and I was taught early on that if I had faith and I was kind to others, the Universe would deliver me all the happiness and prosperity I could handle. As it turns out, that was only partially true. I’ve learned that I have to participate in my life. If I want to receive prosperity and happiness, there are decisions I have to make to allow those things to be given to me. I have found out that it’s not a one-way street.

What are the rules of your life? Read on for some thoughts about a few of mine.


People have been incredibly patient with me throughout my career. It began when I was thirteen years old and begging my Dad to take me to work with him. My Dad was a forty-year professional photo-journalist with the Atlanta Papers (UPI/AP), and I freaking loved photography.

Unfortunately, (for them), the guys at my Dad’s office were not always keen to have a little kid in the office all weekend. Their attitudes began to change after they taught me everything they knew about developing film and prints. I began to spend my time “at work” helping out in the darkroom “catching” for every photographer who worked there. These photographers also taught me how to carry all the camera gear to professional sporting events, and to run to awaiting helicopters with bags of shoot film so they could take a break.

I owe those guys everything and continue to pass their patience on to every photographer who reaches out to me. I answer questions no matter how mundane they are. When their eyes light up I know I have them because we are sharing information about something we really love.


I recall the day I was out surfing in Malibu alone when the famous big wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, pulled up beside me in the three-foot surf. I looked at Laird and immediately said, “Hey man, take whatever waves you want.” It is common surf etiquette to trade waves so everyone gets a chance in a set. Laird said, “No way man, let’s do this!” He paddled into position, caught the wave, stood up, and began flipping his 12′ board in “helicopters”, an inhuman feat of strength.

I grabbed the next wave, knowing Laird was at the end of the line. I faked my best Surfer Magazine cover pose by bending down to tickle my fingers against the wall of my three-foot wave, a right reserved for those who surf monster fifty-foot waves. When I got to the end I clumsily kicked out to find Laird sitting there. Laird looked me right in the eye and said, “Go hard man”, smiled and paddled off.

I am including a link that I really want you to click on to prove the weight of that statement that day.

Laird Surfing Jaws In Hawaii

Laird shared his stoke and it was an unforgettable moment that changed my life instantly.

If you know me personally, you have seen what happens to my face just before I am about to rip into a huge photoshoot. My closest friends would say they don’t even know who I am in those moments. A normally carefree Robert becomes laser focused.

I am absolutely untouchable. I am hyper-aware of my privilege and wrap myself in it completely. The photo business has its ups and downs, but you won’t find that attitude in my camp.

I know what it is like to be unhappy at work.

In my mid-twenties I gave up on photography and was quickly recruited into a corporate position complete with a cubical, an expense account, and all the free scotch I could drink. I spent four miserable years on a trip to and from my personal hell. The fact that I get to wake up in the morning and do exactly what I love and am still obsessed with is truly a gift. Feeling in sync with my talents is unexplainable and I wish more people could find it within themselves to do what they love, so I encourage it. I share my stoke, my never-ending attitude that your most perfect life is there for the taking if you just reach for it.

Life is a mix of ingredients, good stuff, bad stuff, and sweet stuff. When that perfect combo finds you through your hard work and commitment, everyone else will sit back and ask you how you did it so easily and you will just laugh, then, share your stoke.


Kenny Aronoff
Drummer for Fogerty, Mellencamp, Smashing Pumpkins.

Kenny made it very clear to me a number of times that there are no secrets to success. “It’s just hard work and kicking ass until it’s all over.” Kenny shares his stoke with me all the time and I am lifted.


Giving back started with my Dad. On any given Friday night the question around the house was, “Where is Dad?”

Dad could always be found shooting on the sidelines at any local football game. It was not like any local team had ever reached out to my Dad for photography, it was just something he loved, and he loved giving back.

On Monday morning, coaches around the County would find a package left at their office door full of the most incredible photographs of their team in action over the weekend. Schools would use those photos in the trophy cases to highlight their sports programs. It was always an anonymous gift.

I am currently working on shoots for ten local bands in my neighborhood. I have completed shoots for three of them so far, for absolutely nothing. I, too, love giving back.


It took me a long time to learn how to write this newsletter. Spelling and grammar were never my strength. I still struggle with it, even as I am writing this now! It has been, and is currently, the most challenging part of my life, but I keep trying.

I have been discouraged by professionals around the world and even my own family as someone who could not put a sentence together, and they were right, so I reached out.

My first editor was Kayla, a Pepperdine graduate student, and friend, who encouraged me to send her this newsletter before I sent it out blindly. Kayla would make corrections, underline things, and ask me questions. At the end of each newsletter, she would always offer me just a little encouragement like, “ you are getting better”, or “this was really easy, not a lot of mistakes”. That small bit of encouragement always meant the world to me.

My current editor, Sonia, is a possible twin that has the ability to finish my sentences and stare into my soul. She helps me say what I really want to say to you, but with my own voice. Sonia would say, “I speak Robert”, and it’s true. Our friendship allows us to speak each others language and decode the message behind the words. Sonia is a fierce friend and always offers some kind of encouragement or positive feedback that enables me to continue with this experiment as a writer.

A small bit of encouragement for something that is important to me is rocket fuel. Saying to someone, “You absolutely have this and I am on your side”, is life-changing. At least, it has been for me, it’s so easy and so rarely done.


I think it’s very important to assess your life regularly, decide what is working and what isn’t, and remove the things and people who are not serving your purpose. For me, it is easier said than done.

You have to realize you are important. We all possess the awesome power to change ourselves, but also to change how we affect those around us. We possess the power right now to absolutely make someone’s day, and possibly change their life forever.

Don’t believe me? Call a friend, tell them everything you know about them that makes them awesome, then tell them that you love them with all your heart and are rooting for them.

Pick up your phone right now and change the world.

What are your life rules?

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Navigating The Immeasurable Life.

I’m sitting in building 134 of the Long Beach Veterans Hospital waiting for my next push. I experience what I like to call a “soul strike”. I’m not sure if this just occurs in artsy people such as myself, or if being artsy allows me to recognize that I am approaching feelings. It feels like a shaken can of beer in my brain that needs to pop!

I converse with Veterans with amazing stories, big energy, and wisdom while I push their wheelchairs down a long, cold, abandoned hallway to physical therapy, or worse, chemotherapy. What I’m learning from them, in a big way, is that every decision in life, whether your own, or one forced upon you, leads to immeasurable results. 

I take a quick right turn out a side door with my assigned Veteran. He deserves a better experience than this cold hallway. “We’re cutting through the park for some sunshine,” I say to my friend.

I have often thought of how things might have gone if I had made different decisions. As a young person, I was unable to make decisions about my life, a practice that lingered long into adulthood. As I grew stronger, I realized I had a choice. I started rolling the dice with my life.

Rolling the dice requires more than a hair flip and a “come on lucky seven” kind of attitude. Just making the decision to roll the dice can be mentally crippling. Even more terrifying is that after you roll said dice, you have to keep doing it until you crap out or win big! I tend to crap out a lot. But I keep playing until all my chips are gone. It’s the never ending creative process.

As a younger person, I had less to lose, and a lot more chips (or so I thought). I rolled the dice moving to Paris to become “the greatest photographer in the world”. I did not speak French or have a work visa. I didn’t even have a job. I just knew Paris was the spot and had every notion that I would somehow be discovered. I was there for about three months, but I found I enjoyed sitting on Jim Morrison’s grave smoking hashish much more than actually looking for a shoot (a decision I don’t regret). 

The next roll of the dice was a move to New York City. This time I had a better plan, fewer drugs, and no language barrier (except in Brooklyn “EHHHH!  I’m walkin’ herrrrre”). I lived in a loft on top of an ice cream factory in Brooklyn (now DUMBO) and worked with some of the greatest photographers in the world. Everything was going great, right up until my Craigslist roommate tried to murder me in my sleep. I tossed my belongings out the window in the middle of the night and somehow found my way back home to Atlanta.

I continued to roll the dice many more times, not necessarily knowing how things would turn out. It wasn’t for many years that I would start to see a pattern within myself. I realized I had little choice over how things were going to work out, but I had an emotional choice about how things were going to work out inside of me. I have stuck close to what feels right over the years and I give that feeling ultimate respect in my world. Respect for my feelings has paid off in my career with two of the most jaw-dropping compliments an artist could ever receive.

Second Best Compliment Ever:

I’m standing in a group of people behind the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, and I can’t get Kenny Aronoff(Drummer: Jon Fogerty) on the phone. Kenny is running an all-star show rehearsal and I am scheduled to shoot him in action. I put the phone down and gaze into the sea of others trying to find their way backstage when I see the production manager of the show walking out the back door toward me. Grabbing my arm he says “follow me”. As we are walking to the backstage door, I explain to the manager that I didn’t have my credentials yet. At that moment, he turned to me and said, “It’s okay man, I can tell you belong here.”

My jaw dropped. It was an incredible compliment to all the work I have done in the music industry. 


I walked to the stage slipping by Rick Neilson (Cheap Trick), past John Stamos, and to the stage where Kenny was playing. I gave Slash the “eyebrows up head nod” and greeted Darryl Jones (Rolling Stones) with a smile. 

When Kenny finished the song I said, “I don’t have a pass.” Kenny replied, “ Its okay man, you know what to do, that’s why I hang out with you.” Yet another jaw-dropping compliment.

The Best Compliment Of My Career (So Far):

A mid-afternoon call from my friend Miche, from Decatur, Georgia, on no particular day. Miche said over the phone, “I have gotten to the point where I can tell what magazine covers are yours when I pass by the newsstand without looking [at the credits].”

I melted. Goal reached.

Rolling the dice puts energy into motion. Authentic compliments from respected peers are mile markers in your life that remind you that you are on the right path to your dreams, and that others can see it. 

It’s impossible to measure the far reaching effects of our decisions, but they are there. So roll the dice and trust that eventually, you will hit the jackpot of your dreams. You can’t win unless you play.

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