Joe Posnanski: How to meet famous people - Sports Illustrated

How to meet famous people

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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?Marie Curie: It is good, yes.Me: Bad idea to fill up on the bread though.Marie Curie: Yes.Me(after long pause): So what are you ordering?Marie Curie: The salmon, I think.Me: Yeah, I like a good salmon.Marie Curie: Right.Me(after longer pause): I think I'm going with the chicken.Marie Curie: Yes.Me: Yeah. ... So. This really is good bread.Marie Curie: It is good, yes.Me (panicking now after very long pause): So, um, why is it that elevators at hotels have the buttons on different sides? Um, you know, sometimes the buttons are on the right side of the elevator, and sometimes they are on the left, and you never know, It's like a button surprise every time you get in an elevator. It's like when you rent a car and you don't know which side the gas tank is on? You know what I mean. And then you get on the elevator, and end up on the wrong side, you're just looking at a blank wall, you know, and that's just kind of embarrassing, and you have to ask the other person in the elevator to hit the button for your floor and, like, now you're treating a stranger like he is the elevator guy from The Jeffersons, you know?Marie Curie: I do not know.Me: Yeah. I guess maybe that guy was actually the doorman on The Jeffersons.Marie Curie: I do not know what you mean.Me: You know, the guy who always wanted to get a tip and George Jefferson kept slamming the door in his face.Marie Curie: I have never seen The Jeffersons. I have been busy winning two Nobel Prizes and being the first female professor at the University of Paris.Me: Yeah, I guess so. Sorry.Marie Curie: I am not at all certain why you chose me as your lunchtime historical figure.Me: Yeah, that was probably a mistake. I'm giving you that.Marie Curie: You were trying to impress the questioner, I suppose.Me: Um, yeah.Marie Curie: You had to look up the isotopes joke above, didn't you?Me(embarrassed): Yeah. Wikipedia. That's where I got the University of Paris bit too.Marie Curie: I thought so.Me(after about 20 minute pause): So, this is really good bread.

The conversation with Dave Eggers did not go quite this awkwardly but that was because I was with my buddy Pop Warner, a big-time music executive and all, and so he more or less grabbed the conversation and steered it through the various icebergs. Pops, being an executive and salesman and all, knows how to keep a conversation moving. This guy can get farm animals to download Missy Higgins music. Anyway, the two of them got into a fairly interesting conversation about the future of music delivery and what role short films play in the new media age, and the only real part I played (after the epic, "I worked at ESPN," portion of the conversation) came somewhat toward the end when my buddy talked about Rhapsody.

Dave Eggers said: "See, I don't know what Rhapsody is." Seems that Dave -- and I would not have expected this -- has sort of stripped down his life as far as technology goes. He said he does not have Internet at his home, for example. I don't know, this just cut against my image of him*. I figured he would be mega-plugged in. Anyway, after saying he did not know what Rhapsody was, Dave then gave me an opening to participate in the conversation, which as you will see, I boldly and aggressively accepted.

Dave: See, I don't know what Rhapsody is. (Turned to me). Do you know what Rhapsody is?Me: Kind of. I'm not entirely sure how it works ...Dave: So, good, I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't know what Rhapsody is

In other words, I was able to play the, "See, this guy is dumb too," role in the conversation. And I was proud to do it.

*Speaking of something that cuts against image, I've become utterly fascinated by the Mac/PC commercial. The reason I was able to meet Dave Eggers is that I went to see a fundraiser in San Francisco that featured a conversation between him and John Hodgman, the writer who plays PC in those commercials. An actor by the name of Justin Long plays Mac.

The commercials have become fascinating to me because, basically, they seem an almost perfect example of perception running counter to reality. We are all so driven by these perceptions, by how something looks rather than how something actually is. You see it in sports all the time. First basemen, even if they can't hit with power, will often bat third in the lineup because they are first basemen (the Mark Grace effect). Quarterbacks who are big and strong and have great arms but cannot especially play football are often drafted very high because they are big, strong and have great arms. And so on. And so on.

You know the commercial: Hodgman plays PC as a sort of stodgy, aging, outdated, uncool character. And Long plays Mac as a young, cool, hip, with it character. The truth is, though, that Hodgman is actually the funny writer who does cutting edge stuff, the guy who blogs, the guy on The Daily Show, the guy who USES a Mac. Hodgman is MUCH more like the imagine of what Mac really wants to be. And Long, from what I can tell (via Wikipedia!) is a guy who comes from a very conservative family, who knows nothing at all about computers, who plays in movies like The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang. I suspect that's more of the image of PC.

Long did date Drew Barrymore, however. And he was the voice of Alvin in Alvin and the Chipmunks. For what that's worth.

I should say here that this inability to speak to people I greatly admire is not exactly nervousness. I don't really get nervous talking to people anymore. The last time I really got nervous talking to anyone was probably 20 years ago, when I met Bob Costas (and don't worry, I won't tell that story again). The crazy job I do has put me in position to talk to extraordinarily famous people, you know, like Dick Vitale*. Oh yeah, I can handle fame.

No, I would say my issue with talking to famous people is more about my relative inability to do small talk -- that is an art form, my friends -- and my general reluctance to bother people. When in conversation with Dave Eggers, my mind is at all times asking one simple question: "Would Dave Eggers rather be sitting here talking to me ... or would he rather be somewhere else, like with his family or with his friends or in the bathroom or watching a ball game or making meaningful small talk with someone who is rich and famous and could actually help him raise money for one of the 878 worthy causes that he so generously supports?" My mind is not fooled. He would rather be somewhere else. He seems like a very nice guy. And he would rather be somewhere else. And really the best thing I could do here is let him go be somewhere else.

*OK, I kid Dick Vitale, who I like very much, in fact. But I do have to share this one story with you because, not to name drop again, but I once was the master of ceremonies of a program that featured Dick. And he sat next to Margo and me all during dinner, and he was wonderful, charming, told stories, made my wife feel like a million bucks. Later he sent us a package with all of the books he had written -- just the postage on that package had to be $418 -- so, I'm not kidding when I tell you that Dick Vitale is one hell of a guy.

But this was kind of funny and gives you a sense of the different lives we lead. At one point, he started talking about how much traveling wears on him. (I am writing this now from the middle seat on a Southwest flight so, yeah, I get it). And then he said to me: "Listen, let me give you some advice, it's the best advice I ever got."

The best advice Dick Vitale ever got. This had to be good. Treat others as you would like to be treated? Live life to the fullest? The show must go on? Dance like nobody's watching? Never try to take a charge under the basket unless you play for Duke? What could it be?

And he said this: "Get yourself a private plane."

Yeah, that sort of came out of nowhere. But, really, this was his advice. Get yourself a private plane. And then he continued by explaining: "See, it's worth it. Let's say ... let's just say, for argument's sake, that I am getting $30,000 to be here tonight. Let's just say that's the number. So, you know, for a couple of hours airtime it costs me, what, $5,000? (Here I nodded -- that seemed a fair figure). That's at most. So I'm clearing $25,000 and I'm sleeping in my own bed tonight!"

Sure. Win-win. You know, I don't really know what he said after the "Let's just say I'm getting $30,000 to be here tonight" part of the conversation. Because to be the MC that night I was getting paid ... a coupon to get a pair of pants. And I was darned happy to be getting those pants. Most of the time, I get coffee mugs when I speak. And frankly, I've heard myself speak, I don't even deserve the coffee mugs. The thing is, Vitale was being very sincere and fatherly when he recommended the private jet; he thought he was giving me pretty solid advice. Sometimes, now, when I go on trips I will say to Margo, "So what do you think, private jet?" She will suggest sticking with the dented Altima.

So, anyway, the Dave Eggers conversation went really well. No, I didn't really get to tell him how much I admire his work, didn't happen to mention that I specifically came to San Francisco to meet him, didn't talk to him about world events or get any great details or gossip about all the writers and famous people he knows, didn't ask for advice how to start our own literacy charity that Margo and I have been working on for a couple of years, didn't talk to him about what comes next, didn't really accomplish much of anything. I did tell him that I had only a vague sense of what Rhapsody is, though. I figured that will stick with him.

And I left with the solace that if it had been Bruce Springsteen, I would have been even worse.