The speech, as it turns out, was not a speech at all. I misconstrued the parameters of the gig, as Ozzy Osbourne no doubt once said. I thought I would be expected to discourse for a while then throw it open to questions – always a dangerous thing, since you’ve either covered everything or so utterly blown off the audience no one has any interest in hearing you go on anymore. So I prepared an hour’s talk. It’s not hard, really. Since I was there to talk about my books, I would pull a Lesson Learned from each turn one. I practiced the speech, walking around the house, and it came in around 70 minutes. No notes; notes are for the weak.
I made Gnat’s second favorite supper, tacos (spaghetti being the first, with no sauce or sausage) and when my wife came home I kissed everyone except the dog and the fish and left. The event was at the University of Minnesota’s showplace home, Eastcliff. It’s where the President lives. I’d never been there; I’d driven past, but had no memory of its appearance. I did recall a story the Daily did, back during my tenure in the early 80s; then-president Ken Keller had spent money on renovations, including a new fence, and We, The People, were duly appalled at the expense. For some reason the fence was a particular aggravation. Now, 20 + years later, I was driving along the elegant Mississippi Boulevard, river on one side, mansions on the other, and hello: what an incredible fence! Tall and clean, gleaming in the moonlight! This must be the place. Bless you, Ken Keller.
I parked. A few other cars were behind me; they parked too. Oh, great: so people were going to show up, after all. I walked up the block to finish the nub of the 5 PM cigar (which is a nub to begin with, really), did the mental loin-girding, and headed inside.
It took about 47 seconds to realize my conception of the event was totally mistaken. This was not a lecture or a speech. This was a book club, more or less. This was a group of U of M alumni and patrons and “Friends of Eastcliff” who invited authors to speak throughout the year – very informal. Very. Of course, I might have known that if I'd GOOGLED THE EVENT.
I was seated in a chair next to the utterly charming and gracious hostess, facing the rest of the living room – a surprisingly cozy space, given the enormous dimensions of the house. The room was full and warm and if wine had been served, dozing would have been epidemic. I was not expected to speak for an hour – just a few remarks, and then a conversation. I opened with a few remarks, which had nothing to do with my prepared text, and went 40 minutes. Then there was a discussion of things other than my book, such as Walnettos and Spam and Mary Tyler Moore and the Weatherball and the like. Everyone introduced themselves. Turns out my charming and gracious host to my right was the wife of the U of M’s president, which was not entirely surprising since the lanky fellow to my left on the sofa, enduring all this with a wry grin, was the actual president of the University himself. (By some peculiar arrangement of fates I’ve met three – I interviewed Ken Keller for a magazine, met the current occupant last night, and Par-tayed DOWN with C. Peter Magrath, more or less. Well, he married my old boss at Newhouse, Deborah Howell, and we’d see him at parties. It’s odd to see your college president at a party; you can’t shake that Bart – Principal Skinner dynamic, not for a second.)
Everything went nicely and the attendees were bright and appreciative, and I signed some books and petted the family dog – a reminder that people actually live in the house – and got back in the Element. Off with the uniform, on with the sweats and sweater, and back to the grind: had two columns to write. Finished both by 11:15, which gave me time to fast-forward through the rest of the Superman movie. I had no intended on doing so, but there was nothing in the movie that held my interest. They spend millions of dollars on special effects, but couldn’t afford the one guy who would point out that if a flying man wears a cape, and said man descends to the ground, and the prevailing meteorological conditions are “calm,” said cape will tend to billow upwards. Of course, I could overlook inconsistencies in fabric dynamics if the movie had a plot or characters that intrigued me, but oy: nothing. Lois Lane was about 19 years old, I think; Superman came off as a damaged stalker – and a fellow curiously impervious to Kryptonite, as well. The Jesus parallels were a bit much. Especially since that makes Brando into God. It also had the nine-false-endings problem, and when Superman ended up in a hospital bed I expected Hobbits to burst in the room and jump on the mattress. Awful movie.
So what was my point about Danny DeVito’s slurred slurs and the Bob “Jiffy Pop” Hope ad? Just this: I preferred it when the stars had to pretend they were one of us, really. That there were certain values - flag, country, detonated corn hulls consumed with your offspring – that we all shared. What really annoyed me about the DeVito remarks was his account of sexing up the Lincoln Bedroom with his wife; leaving aside the fact that America really doesn’t want to think about this hairy-backed gargoyle pinning Rhea Perlman up against the door, it was the lickerish lip-smacking delight in despoiling something that seemed so utterly typical of an aged ur-boomer. Why don’t we do it in the road? as the Beatles put it. Well, perhaps because you’re not dogs; perhaps because a school bus is due along in a few minutes. For some people of a particular generation, sex is the only sacrament they have, but it’s anything but holy. It’s hot short and loud, like a rest-room hand-drier you turn on by hitting the button with the side of your fist. This has been going on for forty years, but they still act as if the Eisenhower Shock Troops will burst in and arrest them for talking about recreational sex. If they have a church, it has Lenny Bruce as St. Sebastian, pierced by a dozen hypodermic needles. He died for our sins. And what were our sins? That nagging sense of shame at finding a Playboy in daddy's sock drawer, I guess.
And of course this all makes me a prude, I know. And a hypocrite. And a fan of all the gleaming shallow Formica falsehoods propagated in the name of Bob Hope and Jiffy Pop. Perhaps; but sometimes I prefer that to the chattering, shiny, unmoored meta-reality that clatters out of the television sets, or the mouths of our pretty betters. There’s the famous recent Gwyneth Paltrow interview (subsequently denied, of course) in which she expresses her preference for the enlightened nature of England, with its fine dinner conversations over Substantive Ideas – as though your average chav is sitting around the pub discussing why Pope disliked the alexandrine. She said that Americans talked about money and jobs. As for the former, I’ve haven’t talked money at a dinner party in 30 years. It came up in college events, but only in the context of how we might separate the money from those who had it, and give it to others.
As for jobs, well, jobs are what people do, and I’m always keen to know what professions people have. You always learn something. At a party in DC once I met a young woman who was a lobbyist for the Chlorine Institute, or something like that. Her job was to promote a positive public awareness of Chlorine. If that had been a scene from “The Graduate,” the conversation would have stopped there, and we could congratulate ourselves on being clever folk who saw the essential vacuity, if not the inherent toxicity and over-all eco-folly, in being a Chlorine publicist. On the other hand, what’s the chlorine PR racket like? What do you do every day? I love to talk to people about their jobs, and never quite understand the ones who have nothing to say about it. If I found myself next to Ms. Paltrow at a dinner party, I wouldn’t care at all what she thinks about the latest exhibit at the Tate, because she’s a nice-looking person who’s paid to say lines other people have written in a convincing fashion, and that does not necessarily indicate the presence of a fine-tuned aesthetic barometer; it means she has been blessed with good genes and a canny sense of mimicry. What do you think about when you’re in makeup for three hours? That’s what I’d like to know. Because I’d go mad with boredom.
Tomorrow: the box of dead people I found in my closet. New Quirk and new Fargo! Train stations. Whee-hah. Thanks; see you tomorrow.