How to meet famous people
So on Monday I got to meet the writer Dave Eggers. I'm pretty well blown away by Dave Eggers. I almost included him in the acknowledgments section of my Buck O'Neil book, The Soul of Baseball (only $5.99) even though, if you want to get technical, I had never actually met him, and he had nothing whatsoever to do with the book. I just wanted to, you know, acknowledge him. (I acknowledged Ben Folds instead, having never met him either).
It isn't only that I admire Dave as a writer -- though, of course, I do, with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What, the McSweeney's Kingdom and so on -- but I admire him even more as someone who gets stuff done, a guy who writes, edits, cartoons, a guy who has spent so much of his time working with literacy, with young writers, with public schools, with Sudanese refugees, with pirate stuff. He has founded, best I can tell, about 19,000 different magazines and charitable organization.
He also was the key guy behind "The Jump" section in ESPN The Magazine.
This came up, briefly. He somehow figured out that I'm a sportswriter -- I can only imagine that an assistant mentioned this since I, as will become apparent, did not -- and in a kind effort to connect he mentioned his early work with ESPN The Magazine. This was a highlight of the conversation because, quite honestly, I suck at these encounters*.
*OK, it's 5 a.m. in the Oakland Airport -- yeah, 5 a.m., this is what I'm going through so I could meet Dave Eggers -- and I am staring straight at one of those little mini-airport billboards for something called "Laser Eye Center of Silicon Valley." The Laser Eye's spokesman of choice? Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
The billboard reads: "Best Arm, Best Vision. JaMarcus can throw 80 yards with accuracy. Dr. Gary Kawesch enhanced Jamarcus' vision in July 2007."
I have to wonder if, in retrospect, Dr. Gary and the good people at Laser Eye regret putting all their commercial faith in the church of JaMarcus Russell Accuracy. What's he hitting these days, about 45 percent of his passes? I mean, the guy could overthrow Wyoming. I'm not saying they should have completely abandoned the whole JaMarcus sales strategy, I'm just thinking they could have toned down the accuracy part just a little bit, you know, maybe gone with something a little more subtle like, "Great Arm. Improved Vision. JaMarcus can throw 80 yards. And if you think he misses receivers now, you should have seen him BEFORE Dr. Gary Kawesch enhanced his vision. I mean, seriously, the guy was like almost blind. At one point he tried to eat one of our coasters because he mistook it for a delicious cinnamon bear claw. Believe us, it could have been a lot worse."
Truth is, I have absolutely no idea how to engage famous people in conversation. This is also true for semi-famous people and also, you know, not-famous-at-all people. Basically, I'm not all that great with strangers and real conversation. I mentioned here before that my wife Margo and I have seen Paul Rudd around Kansas City and she keeps insisting I go over and introduce myself, and I keep insisting that, no, I'm not going to do that. Because I'm not any good at that stuff.
She says: "But you're a sportswriter. You meet famous people all the time."
This is true. What she fails to realize even after all these years is that I, like many journalists, have a very different persona when I'm working. Journalism is like an excuse, a personal freedom, to ask Tiger Woods directly what was going through his mind on the putt, to ask Peyton Manning why he keeps pointing at every defender in that goofy "I know you! I know you!" act he does before ever snap,* to ask Albert Pujols how he got to be so awesome. I approach people in my job, generally speaking, because I have to do that in order to do my job. I have always been a stand-in-the-corner kind of person at parties. And, away from work, I still am.
To illustrate this in the clumsiest way possible: I have a sportswriter friend who -- long story short -- found himself chasing an unwilling and somewhat hostile interview subject through an airport. He had to get a comment from the subject, and for similar reasons, the subject had to get away without giving a comment. Both men were playing their roles -- subject walking away and saying "no comment," reporter battering him still with new questions. Finally the subject wheeled on him and pleaded, "You know I'm not going to answer your questions. Why do you keep bothering me?" The sportswriter pulled out a photo of his family and said, "This is why I keep bothering you. To put food on the table for them!" Overstated? Yeah, maybe. But when you need a quote, man ...
*The best quarterback pointing act I ever saw happened in Minnesota in 2003 when the Kansas City Chiefs started the year 9-0 despite having one of the most baffled defensive units in the history of professional football. The Chiefs won those first nine games because the offense scored a bajillion points -- that was the year Priest Holmes scored 27 touchdowns. The defense was slapstick comedy. Anyway, in Minnesota, the Vikings were in a passing situation and then, the cornerback covering Randy Moss showed that he was blitzing. He showed WAY too early.
At this point Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper stepped back from the center and pointed at Moss. This wasn't the vague Peyton Manning pointing either, no, this was very direct pointing, like: "Randy! I am pointing at you because I happened to noticed that your guy is going to blitz! So, when he blitzes I am going to throw you a bomb! Do you get it? You! I am throwing to you! Do you understand! Hold on, there's a guy in Section 138 who is just getting back from getting a beer and he missed it. Randy! I am throwing to you! I am now pointing at your defender who is a moron. Now I am pointing back at you to make my point clear! Pointing back at him -- this moron is blitzing. Pointing back at you -- touchdown. OK?"
At this point, of course, trained seals would know to call off the corner blitz, but the Chiefs did not have a trained seal as a defensive coordinator then. They had Greg Robinson. The blitz was called again, Culpepper dropped three steps, the corner came charging in, Culpepper threw a high and long pass to the end zone, Moss ran under it and scored virtually uncovered. That was fun.
Point is, I'm terrible in real-life encounters with famous people. Sometimes, for bizarre reasons, I get interviewed, and I am sometimes asked the, "If you could have lunch with one person in history, who would it be?" question. I never know how to answer that. Other people come up with great responses, like they've really thought this one through. "Hmm, Napoleon? No, he would be reticent. Maybe Elvis." Finally, they will come up with an impressive-sounding answer like "Copernicus" or "Marie Curie" or "Jesus." What the heck would I say to Marie Curie? I mean, yeah, if I was doing a story on her, I suppose I could ask something like, "So, wow, what were you thinking when you did, like, all your pioneering work in radioactivity?" Or: "When you came up with new techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, that was awesome."
But I suspect if I ever really had a lunch conversation with a famous historical figure, it would go like this:
Me: So, um, this is a good bread, right?