"Just ok?"

My (totally true) Richard Simmons encounter

“Do you like the baby Jesus?” Richard asked me.

“Uh.. sure…” I answered as hesitantly as I imagine you would have answered.

“I just love the baby Jesus,” said Mr. Simmons as we walked up and into his living room, revealing a staggering number of — you guessed it — baby Jesus ceramic statuettes and sculptures.

From all around the world.

As I native Californian I was thinking more of earthquakes — looking around at all these breakables — less of creepiness. Although in a Louisiana-Anne-Rice kinda way there definitely was some of that too.

“New Orleans,” he said when I asked the question I always ask when a person looks like they *might* be from somewhere else.

“Of course,” I answered approvingly.

It made so much sense.

The columns, the colors, the gaudiness. Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t Tammy Faye gaudiness, but it also wasn’t the California-Spanish or modernist villa I’d expect somewhere above Sunset Blvd.

Which was where I’d found myself on that fateful spring day in 2013.

At least I think it was 2013.


The years following my fathers’ death are a blur to me now. Hell they were a blur to me then.

That’s probably how I ended up in Richard Simmons’ kitchen.

I was following a blur.

I had taken a pretty strange (yes even for me) job — delivering contracts and odd small items between celebrities and legal offices because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

It was a mere two years prior that I was in a completely different world — on the steps of the State Capital no less, stepping up to the podium right after John Muir’s Great Grandson, on behalf of my own John Muir-ish father John Olmsted, who’d just died, to advocate for all California parks to remain open.

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I was touring the state, speaking on radio and TV, getting on the cover of newspapers urging everyone to “Give a Buck” for parks.

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That is until it turned out there was plenty of money, it just wasn’t where it was supposed to be.

I know, shocking.



Of pep talks, lunches, and coffees

“Hi Alden this is you doing anything for lunch?”

Sheesh is it that obvious?

In the immediate days, weeks, and years following dad’s death, lunches and coffee meet-ups had become a semi-regular event. Especially after the parks’ scandal when it really seemed like any plans I’d had were falling faster than a 90’s coming of age movie featuring actors far past adolescence.  


Yeah I’d had plans. Who doesn’t construct at least some plans?

But one of many pearls I’ve now learned is that non-specific plans aren’t plans, they’re thoughts. That’s all. Thoughts as substantial as dandelion spores disappearing into a wild field on a summer afternoon.

Back to lunch

The pep talk thing was real. And I don’t say that ungratefully.

People close to me could see that a potion of equal parts standard issue grief and loss, mixed with expectations of following up a semi-famous father’s accomplishments — at 40 no less — was a tall order.

Add in the fact that I’d been trying to “do something great” for about 20 years, and well.

That tall order had become a Big Gulp of expectations. The 64 ouncer baby.

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No, the pep talks were great.

I mean, they were mostly good.

They were fine. I mean yeah, one or two may have felt assumptive and preachy.

And then they got less frequent.

And ok fine — I guess my eye rolls had become harder to hide.

That’s where Richard came in.

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I was staying at a friends’ house in Brentwood for at least the third time, and had said to myself upon arrival

“Dude, you just need a job. Period.

Something to go to and get paid and come back from.

It doesn’t have to be perfect.


Be careful what you say to yourself, my friend.

I hopped on Craigslist and answered an ad for a local delivery position with a decent pay structure (wouldn’t be close to true lol). I interviewed and they copied my license and gave me a flip-phone.

And awaaaaay I went!

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I delivered a contract to Spielberg’s house the first day on the job. Pop art sample ideas for Gwen Stefani on day two. A $50,000 royalty check to the drummer of a certain pop band named after a shade of red on week three, and the day after the Academy Awards I delivered consolation flowers to Jessica Chastain after she didn’t win the Oscar for Zero Dark Thirty.

She wasn’t home but had a really cute roommate.

You get the idea. It wasn’t boring.

One day I remarked to myself that my luck of no red zone tickets (despite parking in the red on the daily) would simply have to come to an end, and possibly in an ugly fashion, and then and there vowed to come up with an exit plan asap.

I was about to close the flip-phone for the day when I thought I’d take one last delivery.

I messaged in.

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Pickup: Santa Monica Blvd Century City — H. Mann & Mann CPA
Deliver: Belfast Dr. Sunset plaza — R. Simmons

“R. Simmons?” I thought…. “Theee R. Simmons?”

Nahhhh. Can’t be.

I slammed my unregistered Honda Civic hatch, purchased specifically for this type of garbage job into first gear and sped off. From Century City to Sunset Plaza should be about 12 minutes I estimated, maybe ten.

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I was not messing around in those days.

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I rolled up to this house above Sunset Blvd, knocked on the front door and heard nothing. Not a dog, not steps, no noise at all.

I was about to bail — on the job itself too — when I peered around the side and noticed a small door cracked open. I stepped closer and knocked lightly, tilting my head a bit and pushing the door inward just enough to see Richard.

There he was. At a regular desk, leaning over a regular laptop, and when he heard the knock he looked at me over his readers and answered

“Hello! You have my papers?

“I do.” I answered bluntly.

“That was quick.” he added as he stood up and set his glasses down.

“And how are you doing?” He added.

“I’m ok.” I answered.

And that was it — the record stopped like in an old west saloon when one feller calls the other feller yella. He snapped up and looked me straight in the eyes and said:

“Just ok?” as he walked over and confronted me — me and my non-committal attitude.

“Not Great?” he added.

“Well,” I continued, “..It’s been a long day” I answered, clearly using day as a substitute for years.

We both stood there in silence for a moment. And then

“Follow me,” he said, “you like the baby Jesus? – I just love the baby Jesus.

And up the stairs we went.



We stood there

in his kitchen on that Spring afternoon, an aging star from the 80’s who’d spent as many years as I was alive yelling at out of shape geriatrics to shape up! Step out! Sweat to the oldies!

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He asked me why I was “just ok,” so I told him. I told him about dad and about taking care of him and about making the movie and trying to save the parks and not knowing what to do with my life and wondering why nothing sticks and, and, and…

“Sounds like you’re doing great” he said. “I bet your dad would be proud of you.”

“Hmm..” I answered. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right. Would you like something for the road?” He offered.

“Well I could use a water — thanks” I said.

And that was it.

I knew it would sound crazy to my friends. And I knew it would sound corny to probably anyone else.

But that’s what happened.

That’s what happened when Richard Simmons asked me if I liked the baby Jesus.

And what happened when I said yes.


I didn’t turn a magic corner the next day

But I did plan my exit. A few weeks later I would quit that job and take a friends’ apartment who was getting married back in Northern California.

I would tackle my dad’s artifacts and secure placement in museums like the Academy of Sciences, the Claremont Botanical Gardens, and The Appalachian Trail Museum.

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I would make three more movies, each one better than the last.

And though I struggled a few more years before coming up to the surface, I never again believed those negative voices. I tried not to wallow in the what ifs.

And I never again questioned whether I was making my dad proud.

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Soon after I’d met Richard he went missing. Tabloids blew up and the rumours were floating.

But it didn’t change what happened for me that day. I know what state I was in and I know what a small but genuine gift of kindness he gave me.

I didn’t need a huge push that day.

Not a Tony Robbins’ shouting session.

I just needed a reminder. A friendly word from someone who didn’t know me from Adam. Who wasn’t telling me what I wanted to hear, but an unattached stranger, hearing my story and just reacting to the obvious.

That I was doing ok. Better than ok.

I was doing great.

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For that I say thank you Richard.

Wherever you are.